alexandtheweb / blog

Skeuomorphic interfaces and something about early Renaissance painting

Every blog post and article which mentions skeuomorphs seems to start with their definition, so I suppose I’d better do the same.

This is a decent example of a skeuomorphic UI:

Contacts on iPad

Or, something like this: the use in interface design of highly realistic and representational elements and textures which usually reflect on the previous, real-world incarnation of the object the UI is meant to embody. Leather textures and paper flip effects for calendars, realistic dials on music applications, etc.

Interface skeuomorphism apparently began to enter Apple’s design repertoire with the release of Mike Matas’ Delicious Library, spawning a group of developers now teasingly known as the delicious generation. Realistic interfaces have proliferated since then – see iCal and iPhoto for the iPad – and are actively encouraged by Apple’s iOS HIG. Steve Jobs was, at least anecdotally, a fan.

Sayeth the mighty HIG:

Often, the more true to life your application looks and behaves, the easier it is for people to understand how it works and the more they enjoy using it.

Designers and Apple observers, meanwhile, really really REALLY hate the company’s growing love of skeuomorphs as a perversion of everything its Dieter Rams-derived design aesthetic is supposed to stand for. Did I mentioned they really truly hate it? Let’s have a look at some of their arguments. Skeuomorphs are:

  • Tacky
  • Sentimental
  • Bad for usability
  • Bad for evolution of design in general
  • Unjustified or using objects users are possibly already unfamiliar with (see: rotary phones)

Apple’s HIG preaches back as follows: use skeuomorphs, but only if they don’t get in the way of users’ task completion. Otherwise, users will “delight in”, “enjoy” and “appreciate the quality” of your “beautiful” interface. “Beautiful” gets mentioned in the guidelines 17 times. “Usability” once.

My limp Libra nature prevents me from having a strong opinion about the matter one way or another. It’s not really an option, anyway – neither side has forked over any hard evidence of skeuomorphs’ emotional or ergonomic effectiveness or lack thereof. And, like any other design pattern, a realistic UI can be exceptionally badly implemented. I do, however, think that skeuomorphs’ richness, familiarity, and beauty are part of Apple’s secret Disney soul.

But then I also think of this:

Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

This is the Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck’s painting from 1434 and arguably one of the most famous works of art in the world. In it, Van Eyck sought to meticulously and realistically reproduce the texture and light of every object within the graceful interior. From the golden glint of the chandelier, to every fine hair on the smirking canine, to the fur-trimmed sleeves of the bride, the amount of detail is almost microscopic, almost, erm.. retina display. In the words of Robert Hughes, “all nature is sacramentalized by the sheer intensity of his gaze”. Not content to hold our attention with the beautiful minutia of his brushstroke, Van Eyck adds to the painting a mirror in which he himself can be glimpsed as if to say “you are here with me”.

The Arnolfini picture is all about immersing the viewer in its rich illusionism . It’s about creating a celebration of the sumptuousness and depth of nature and of the artist’s own immense skill. And I guess I can’t help seeing the same principles underpin some skeuomorphic UIs: it’s less about sentimentality or comfortable transitions from the real to the digital, and more about enchantment. Or something.

Unsurprisingly, illusionism in painting was taken down in the 60’s in much the same way skeuomorphs are being taken down now. The minimalist Donald Judd labelled illusionist painting a lie and called on painting to assert itself as a real object, pure in form.

A wild guess is that most people prefer Van Eyck’s painting to this