Skeuomorphism, for better or for worse

A word of the week: "Skeuomorphism." We heard it this week while covering the ouster of Scott Forestall, a senior executive at Apple. It refers to a digital design approach in which things on the screen are made to look old-school, like the app for notes that resembles a yellow legal pad. Forestall was close to the late boss Steve Jobs who favored that look. Some designers think skeuomorphism is as tacky as naugahyde and could be on its way out at Apple.

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David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio
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Why is skeuomorphism such a dirty word all of a sudden? I read two of the Fast Company articles by Austin Carr. Full disclosure: I'll be 60 in seven months. I'm a boomer. I'm probably 30 years older than Mr. Carr. That said, there is something to be said in defense of Apple's UI (user interface). I like the well designed inkwell icon representing my Pages software and the podium representing "Keynote". I have a calculator and dictionary icon that are INSTANTLY recognizable for what they will activate. Skeuomorphic icons and wooden bookshelves are like real life. They are images that (for me anyway) provide the comfort and even emotion that accompany recognition. If Microsoft wants to depart from their usual "Me too" following of Apple innovation, I say go ahead. If they want to represent programs in Windows 8 with skittle-colored Mondrian rectangles with minimalist images (that apparently still need a text word for description), fine. It's like a 21st century version of the Bauhaus movement. They applaud that (in one of Austin Carr's articles). But look where Bauhaus took commercial architecture in the latter half of the previous century. We are up to the penthouse with cold, plain, lifeless, brutal, pedestrian-unfriendly buildings in our largest cities. It's "Bow-Wow-haus" to me. Lacking all sense of texture, human scale, and warmth. I'm confident that Apple knows they have established a sensible balance between the textures that Carr decries with more simplified elements in the Apple UI, and that they will continue to innovate based on their graphic success. I want to keep my digital leather and wood grain.

I heartily agree with Carpeverde's comments. I ride a steel-framed 1970s bicycle--as do many fixie riders less than half n my age who have rediscovered the joy of a technology that is twice as old as I am (60). Not every item in our lives needs to be sleek and ultramodern.

(How many people prefer the taste of plasticky, GMO, factory-farm tomatoes to the taste of garden-fresh heirloom tomatoes?)

We still have real books on real bookshelves, and even fountain pens with inkwells if one wants to be an "artisanal" writer. The fads of graphic design need to produce user-friendly,functional tools and results, first and foremost. That means retaining easily-recognized icons with clear meanings that stand alone. "Always make it easy on your reader."


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