Can Good Design Just Let Go of the Past?

A lot has been made of the use—and over use—of skeuomorphism in iOS and OS X. I think it’s safe to say that dead horse has been well and truly beaten enough. Here’s the thing, the essential thing, that we’ve forgotten—sometimes skeuomorphism works and we need it to make sense of things.

Take some time to read the post on the Realmac software blog about design and skeuomorphism. One of the examples in the post is their app Courier, which I bought some time ago to do mass uploads to Facebook for a client, and yeah cute interface, totally didn’t get it. It happens. In the post, they admit, yep…clever idea, but just not the right way to get the job done.

Then there are things like iBooks. Sure it’s a little odd to have “pages” in a virtual book that is really dimensionless, but it makes us comfortable and we like it. Even subtle things like the Settings icon. It’s gears, it’s the inner workings, tap that and you’re under the hood. Clever and it works.

Blux movie HD

It comes down to this, and the title of the post, no good design can’t let go of the past. Dieter Rams’ 10 principles of good design rely just as much in a grounding in the past as they do a vision of the future. One of my new favorite apps is Blux Camera (and Movie). I didn’t quite get it at first, some things made sense, because they used standard icons, but other elements didn’t make sense. How do I do this? How do I adjust that? Why can’t I shift between effects easily by “turning” the dial?

Blux camera for iPad

I’d say, with the exception of the screen looking like rippling water when a widget is turned off or on, it is a clever, clever app that helps me both just learn to use it by doing and become more comfortable with it as I go. Why is that? Because parts of it, the right parts, are based on things I know and can grab from the real world. Switching between different photo modes is like turning a dial, except it’s easier to tap the dial than turn it. Oh and there are two dials. Outer for the “big” effect and the inner for the tuning (back lit, cloudy, rainy, sunshine). Sure it borrows from film cameras, but in a way that makes sense. Dials to change things make sense. The zoom slider goes up and down. Makes sense. Other ways to tune the picture (and there are many, many ways before you even take the shot) stay out of the way until you need them. Then, again, they are based on sliding adjustments up or down.

Makes perfect sense.

This is just one (non-Apple for once) example of where blending the familiar helps learn the new. Where the past helps guide to understand something. Apple has certainly lost its way of late, but I think they’ll get back there.

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  • Jeremy Taco Patterson

    Great write up. I am among those who feel iOS is REALLY running the risk of becoming stagnant. It is in desperate need of a breath of fresh air. I am truly hopeful that Sir Jony will breathe that breath into it as he takes a more active role in software, though I’m not sure that it his forte.

    • Shrivatsa Somany

      As much as I agree with you, think of it this way: He isn’t doing anything with software. He is looking more at design, and tying hardware+software together…that blurs the line a little. Even though Eddy Cue is more of a Mr. Fixit right now, I think he will be pushing software boundaries. Right now, iOS is stagnant because of it’s design and general interface elements, not because of a lack of optimization *cough*4.2*cough*.

      • Rounak Jain

        there’s no doubt that iOS is one of the most optimised and efficient OS, it’s just that the other platforms have innovated upon the UI, while iOS has remained same

        • Shrivatsa Somany

          Yes, and certain things are sorely missing. I just moved back to iOS after year…I don’t miss widgets, I don’t miss fancy lock screen crap. The face unlock feature is cool, but annoyingly slow. Widgets, again I feel give little information, and take up too much space. I like the idea behind live tiles A LOT. Maybe dynamic buttons on iOS?

          The thing I miss most from a UI standpoint: Toggles.
          The thing I miss most from a software standpoint: Sniff, Google Maps, it’s amazing that maps is LITERALLY useless in India. I’m living with HERE maps and the Gmaps web-app for now.

          Things I dont miss: The absolutely incoherent UI in android apps, yes the better onces emulate the system really well…but they are too few and far between. I like how every app on iOS behaves the same way.
          Hardware: ‘Nuff said.

          • Rounak Jain

            about maps: I hear you, bro. Gmail’s web app is annoying slow, especially on EDGE, so all I do for Maps is go old school and ask people for directions.

          • Shrivatsa Somany

            People in Delhi are like Apple Maps, they give THE worst directions ever…and their super confusing hand movements that say something completely different are just…argh.

            Hurry up with Maps google.

    • Rounak Jain

      Can’t disagree with any bit of what you said.