Apple Continues to Fade as Skeuomorphic Design Dies

Besides inspiring many otherwise sane people to part with vast sums of money for below standard products produced under highly questionable ethics, Apple’s rise to power in recent years has also had a phenomenal impact on graphic and web design.

White minimalist graphic design never truly dies but Apple’s reflective table, curved edges and 3D shading rocketed it back into high end vogue, in no time anyone selling anything had it sitting on a white reflective surface with glossy shine digitised onto the product itself.

Apple's glossy surface design styleThe reflective white surface and glossy shine; occasionally a black surface and background was used but minimal white was the brand image and graphic design trick that stuck, and before long those glossy reflections were everywhere.

The style caught on very quickly with tech gadgets and products, while the Photoshop gloss was similarly digitised on to all kinds of products, logos and social media icons. The approach is called skeuomorphism, and it basically means trying to make a flat 2D image look like it’s 3D or “real”; the picture above isn’t a digital rendering of the iPhone design, it’s a digital rendering of the iPhone in a lit studio sitting on a table albeit in an entirely unlikely way.

In their software, Apple pushed the design style even further, turning ebook stores into bookshelves, giving calendars a leather-bound filofax kind of vibe and providing sound recording software with an old school tape look. Whilst the general opinion amongst a lot of professional designers seemed to be that this was rather naff and made the software feel old fashioned or cheap contrasted against the very modern industrial look of the products themselves, plenty of everyday users quite liked it.

Apple's skeuomorphic iBooks designCool or crass? The iBooks store, one of Apples heavily skeuomorphed graphic designs, and much derided even by Apple adoring designers

Largely designers dislike the approach because it is incredibly uninspiring, unoriginal, un-designed and deviates away from making the software easier to use in favour of making it look “nice”. All this sums up some common criticisms from Apple detractors;

1. All they care about is making things look pretty, functionality is often poor in comparison to competitor products.

2. Apple is not an innovation powerhouse or even very creative and steal all their best ideas; tablets were first produced by Microsoft 6 years before iPad, MP3 players were out for 4 years prior to iPod, Apple made existing products look more pretty, called it a revolution and everyone swooned.

So while the heavy skeuomorphics became a minor embarrassment  the more restrained approach used in branding and advertising had a wide impact in graphic and web design. Drop shadows, glossy surfaces, shading and lighting sources popped up everywhere to make entirely unreal objects like websites look like they had some kind of real world physical presence; a brushed chrome sheet for menu bars, three dimensional top lit buttons for links and white glossy tables for any products to sit on.

Since Steve Jobs passed away a lot of change has been happening at Apple though, they’ve released a series of decidedly average (iPhone 4S and 5 were basically just minor upgrades to the 4) and definitively bad (their attempt at mapping software) products,  obsoleted things less than a year old (iPad 4 releasing the second iPad 3 sales had maxed out) and had all kinds of dirty laundry aired about treatment of staff in factories and impact on the environment.

Of course, Apple are still colossally profitable and sitting on top of the tech/web industry, but cracks are appearing in that glossy surface. Primary competitor Samsung’s long investment in challenging them is paying off with the Galaxy smartphone outselling the iPhone and a slowly dawning realisation amongst consumers that Samsung tablets carry a far more impressive spec than the iPad as well.

Just as Apple’s rise saw widespread adoption of their graphic design style, so their potentially looming demise is seeing the opposite happen; user interface design is a hot topic, and designers are fed up with trying to make a purely digital thing somehow look like something in the real world when that doesn’t make it any easier to use. The response is an approach getting called pure digital; no drop shadows, wood textures or tape reels to be found here, it’s all about solid colours on basic shapes forming simple geometry.

The specific piece of graphic and user interface design that has perhaps defined pure digital best underlines the rule of everything being cyclical and takes some revenge for that tablet steal; Microsoft Windows 8 is dividing opinions in terms of functionality on desktops, but it’s a beautiful piece of pure digital design and perfectly suited to the miniaturised screens of smartphones and tablets.

The Windows 8 approach to pure digital graphic designThe Windows 8 “Metro” design style; an instant classic that defines the new pure digital approach

It’s clean, unfussy and endlessly adaptable to different screen sizes and orientations, really underlining it as a perfect design approach for the array of web and software viewing products in the marketplace. Designers are rapidly jumping on it, with web design forums buzzing about designing things in a grid and getting rid of bevels and drop shadows in favour of crisp, solid colour squares, circles and rectangles.

Just before 2012 ended Apple announced that they were dropping skeuomorphics from their own software and interface designs and a look around their website and marketing materials currently reveals a distinct dulling down of the drop shadows and gloss. Of course it leaves them in a tricky spot though, they either have to come up with something entirely new or they have to follow Microsoft’s design lead, long derided as a company that produces ugly and unimaginative design that Apple had left in its wake.

What does all this mean to those of us without multi-billion dollar tech companies or Internet MP3 stores? It means it’s time to start re-evaluating our own graphic and web designs. The more tasteful end of skeuomorphics is still champion online and the preferred look of the majority of clients, but soon it will start to edge out of date. And as our websites get viewed on an ever increasing array of screen shapes and sizes, we all need to start thinking about when the time is right to make the jump into a purer graphic design that gives customers the cleanest, most functional and most adaptable user experience.

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