Skeuomorph, Pt II

James Higgs’ post on aesthetic dichotomy highlights the clash between two different design approaches present in Apple’s products. On the one hand you have the simple, clean and minimalist exterior, and on the other you have software that’s adorned in materials like leather, wood and linen. The design of the shell is a brutal elimination of everything unnecessary, while the design of the software relies on decorative skeuomorphs to make itself more appealing and comfortable.

While Higgs attacks the skeuomorphic elements by calling them aesthetic infantilism I think there is a more practical explanation. The minimalist exterior of the products in question isn’t bland and cheap. Apple uses materials like glass and metal to create a sense of luxury, durability and value in their products, especially when contrasted with the plastic goods of their competitors. The reason the products themselves follow a minimalist design is becuase this is the most practical approach to mass production. It’s industrial design. Removing decoration and focusing on simple shells allows Apple to put these products together faster and cheaper–and yes, have an elegant, modern look, too.

On the other hand, the pixels on the screen are free. While using wood and leather for the hardware is less practical, these materials can be mimicked on the screen without additional cost. In the same way that Apple uses glass and aluminum to communicate durability and value in their hardware, they use leather, wood and linen to communicate quality and luxury on the screen. Indeed, most of the OS actually mimicks the hardware exterior, with an aluminum texture used on window chrome and white plastic on the buttons.

In this way I think the two approaches above are actually part of the same design philosophy. It’s not necessarily about minimalism–it’s about simplicity. It’s also about using materials as a tool to weave a sense of quality and luxury into their products. After all, most of the decoration in question has to do with imitating materials and textures–they don’t actually go out of their way to add visual flourishes, frames and illustrations. A textureless pixel screen is usable and honest, but it’s also bland. Imitating textures is a way to appeal to emotion, a cheap way to elevate the bland pixel display to something the consumer will find more appealing and desirable.

Additionally, adorning software in materials gives that software style. This is important because style has a use-by date. After a while, a style will get boring and tired, especially when it becomes popular as others start to use it. The designer will then throw the old one out and fashion a fresh new look for their product. A product may not have much in terms of new functionality, but if it looks new, it feels new. There is no easier way to communicate an update than by updating the look of a product–it’s something the consumer will instantly see without even using the thing. This itself is a good thing if you want to keep moving product off the shelves as it gives you an easy way to make the old product look outdated and the new one fresh and desirable.