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Apple and the future of design

Dave Wiskus | Jan. 8, 2013
I blame the floppy disk. For years, it served as the icon for "save," clearly illustrating to the user that your data would be written to that flat square thing with the hole in it--a digital representation of hardware, guiding you to your intended goal. Clicking that icon would block the UI with an hourglass cursor, and reward you with the familiar grinding song of a floppy drive.

Internally, even Apple has copied Apple; much of the style and flair of iOS's skeuomorphism has made its way to Mac OS X, presumably because of the mainstream popularity of the iPhone and iPad. Familiarity is comfort is trust. Give the people what they're used to.

It's curious how Apple's hardware and software have taken such divergent paths. Looking at iOS hardware and software separately, one might think they were produced by different companies. The drop-shadows and textures of iOS stand in sharp contrast to the clean lines and invisible seams of Apple's hardware. Comparing major models of either the iPhone or iPad line, Jony Ive's industrial design team seems to be on the march, creating devices that feel ever more like they're carved from a single block of magical stone. So why is it that Apple would ship these devices with software featuring deep shadows and visible stitching?

A lot of people see this reliance on physical representation as condescending, which has led to a skeuomorph backlash and an emerging trend toward flat, minimalist design. Letterpress, the delightful Game Center-crippling word game, consists of solidly-colored geometric shapes, and relies heavily on sound and typography to guide the user through the experience. The to-do app Clear has eschewed buttons entirely, opting for pure gesture-based control.

With the benefit of hindsight, Apple's visual design choices seem to stand alone from even their interaction design. One telling example is Apple's own version of the save icon: there isn't one. On iOS, saving happens automatically with no intervention from the user.

This may seem like a small convenience, but the move away from the long-standard file system is actually an even more profoundly important move away from thinking of your content as data. Instead, it's just stuff--ethereal yet tangible all at once. You care about your own access to it and whether or not others have access. The rest is confusing semantics.

Hardware and software alike are trending toward conceptual simplicity. It's just taking a little longer for software to look the part.

Steve Jobs very purposefully built Apple to be a skate-to-where-the-puck-is-going company, and while skeuomorphic design has acted as a bridge between the physical world and digital abstractions, it's becoming increasingly obvious that the world is comfortable with digital now. Technology is no longer witchcraft to be feared by the masses. We've grown accustomed to having phones, tablets, and computers around us to do things. With both visual and interaction design, we're nearly past the point of real-world metaphors being useful, and the simplest representation is usually best.

Jony Ive is famously minimalist. Putting him in charge of all things design should be seen as recognition by Apple that the world is ready for software and hardware to work in concert, not just mimic one another.


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