Skeuomorphism is (finally) dead: So what is Apple’s next design move?

Much has been said already about the departure of Scott Forstall at Apple. The politics of it aside, with a refreshed executive leadership in place, CEO Tim Cook now has the opportunity to usher in a new era of discovery and transformational design at Apple. It’s an exciting and possibly defining prospect, but the question remains: If Apple’s current software design style needs an upgrade, where could newly installed design head Jony Ive and his team take it? Ive is clearly an extremely talented and passionate design leader, but his background is in hardware. Will his abilities scale to successfully lead all of Apple’s software design too?

Since the early days of Apple, their approachable design made digital software and interfaces accessible and usable, to the extent that even a child could use them. But their innovation since the launch of the first iPad has either been incremental (for example iOS or the iPad Mini) or flawed (for example Siri and Apple Maps). Their software design has also remained stale with many contending that a refresh is overdue. Arguably, Apple is now playing defense, giving competitors like Microsoft and Google space to innovate and set trends in interface design across devices and platforms.

Steve Jobs was—notoriously, to many members of the design community—a fan of skeuomorphism, a style that relies on real-world metaphors and textures in digital interfaces. Fake leather, wood, paper and glass became commonplace in Apple applications, in addition to real-world metaphors like bookshelves, paper shredders, and even casinos. While skeuomorphism might have been beneficial in the early days of computing in helping less-tech-savvy types navigate a user interface, it now feels out of place in a world where most people are using a host of digital interfaces throughout the day, and where younger people have never even experienced physical rolodexes, paper shredders or giant desk calendars. From a design perspective, when used excessively skeuomorphism is at best out-dated, at worst confusing and tasteless. More importantly though it feels at extreme odds with Apple’s hardware, which is designed with sophistication and constraint. So where might Apple’s designs go?

Image courtesy of Apple

Looking at competitors like Microsoft, its new Windows UI style, across operating systems, is at the direct opposite end of the spectrum from skeuomorphism. It’s a modernist Swiss style, where all excessive embellishments are removed. The life in the experience comes from content and transitions, not from visual UI ornaments.

The wildly successful Android OS lands somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, between skeuomorphism and the new minimalist Windows style. While visually Android is not leading the way (and here I include all of the Android licensees), there are now several interaction patterns and solutions that are better designed and more advanced than what iOS offers.

Microsoft has claimed the minimalist corner, and a radical Apple departure from their current UI style could be confusing to existing users, and would also admit defeat (which is not a very Apple-like trait as well). Apple has long had a human-centered design focus, and has gone further than most to make technology accessible to everyone. Apple’s challenge then is formidable: To retain the focus on simplicity, accessibility and ease-of-use, while at the same time refreshing their UI style and introducing design consistency across their increasingly wide range of software and services. It’s a tall order, and will need investment, focus and talent.

The most transformative devices today are ingenious pieces of software wrapped in desirable hardware. The Nike+ FuelBand or the self-learning Nest thermostat are examples of new software products that are wrapped in well-designed hardware. Apple has long been the master at this, but competitors are encroaching on their territory. Microsoft has gone against its hardware suppliers in creating its own showpiece for Surface—a move it had to make to ensure that the hardware maximized the potential of the software. But creating this combo is not easy, and Apple will have to work hard to stay on top. Various pieces of Apple software on a range of different devices connect to incredibly advanced services and algorithms in the cloud. Orchestrating this, and presenting the services to people in a way that’s easy and delightful to use, is very challenging. Not many companies do it well and consistently (which is why the relative failure of the complex Siri and Apple Maps services weren’t a big surprise for some).

With iOS, Apple showed the world how the graphical touch paradigm should work. Modern touch interfaces are now characterized by responsive, fluid and direct interaction, while tapping, swiping and pinching have become dominant gestures. Apple led the way in making touch interaction mainstream. Looking ahead, interactions will move beyond the screen into thin air, and both input and output will increasingly use voice. Apple now has an opportunity to once again lead the way and design the dominant interactions for what comes next in computing.

The wearables category will need great design to go mainstream, and Apple’s entry in the race could be inspiring. A radically redesigned iOS would be very interesting, and a confident Apple entry into “control point” services like search or commerce would be fascinating. If Cook and Ive are able to succeed with a bold investment in a service play, they will not only create immense value for Apple, but also demonstrate that they can pull off their own innovations, rather than just incremental changes to what Steve Jobs envisioned.

Om Malik’s recent piece here about the change-up at Apple highlighted an increasingly schedule-driven release culture under Tim Cook’s leadership. This might indeed become a challenge for software innovation. If the question “when do we ship” ever becomes more important than “what do we ship,” true innovation, risk-taking, and design excellence become hard.

A radical refresh of iOS, a category-defining entry into wearables, or a confident push into services like search or commerce could spell the real making of Tim Cook. Right now the jury is still out. For us designers, Jony Ive now has the chance to upgrade his status from mere legendary design Lord to design demigod. I hope he takes it.

Olof Schybergson is CEO and Co-Founder at the service design consultancy, Fjord. (Twitter: @fjord.)

Apple image courtesy of Shutterstock.