While I appriciate the beauty and functionality of Apple products, this is one reason I think their UI design is overrated (too much faux chrome, stitched leather, etc.):
When we get to the last week of this month, open your Google Calendar and choose the month view. You will see the previous three weeks are greyed out. Only the next few days will be “active”. If you want to see what you’ve got planned for more than the next couple of days, you’ll have to flip forward to next month.
Now ask yourself this: why does Google Calendar — and nearly every other digital calendar, come to that — work in this way? It’s a strange waste of space, forcing you to look at three weeks of the past. Those weeks are largely irrelevant now. A digital calendar could be much more clever; it could reformat on the fly, putting the current week at the top of the screen, so that you always see the next three weeks at a glance.
Why don’t computer calendars work like that? Because they’re governed by skeuomorphs —bits of design that are based on old-fashioned, physical objects. As Google Calendar shows, skeuomorphs are hobbling innovation by lashing designers to metaphors of the past. Unless we start weaning ourselves off these defunct models, we will fail to produce digital tools that harness what computers do best.
Now, skeuomorphs aren’t always bad. They exist partly to orient us to new technologies. As literary critic N Katherine Hayles nicely puts it, they are “threshold devices, smoothing the transition between one conceptual constellation and another”. The Kindle is easy to use precisely because it behaves so much like a traditional print book.
But just as often, skeuomorphs kick around long past the point of reason. Early motorcars often included a buggy-whip holder on the dashboard — a useless fillip that designers couldn’t bear to part with.
Despite being lauded for design, Apple is the reigning champion in this field, producing a conga line of skeuomorphs that are by turns baffling and annoying. Its iPhone app, Find My Friends, includes astonishingly ugly, faux stitched leather that wastes screen space. On the new iCal for the Macintosh, things are odder yet: when you page forward, the sheet for the previous month rips off and floats away, an animation so artless you’d swear it was designed personally by Bill Gates.
In contrast, digital designers who step away from skeuomorphs often produce amazingly clever concepts. Consider Soulver, a calculator for the Mac. It was designed by two 18-year-old Australians who decided that most computer calculators were far too derivative. They created a genuinely new interface. You type English commands like “20 per cent of £13.80” or “£45 for dinner + 15 per cent tip”, and Soulver displays the answer.
The duo harnessed a unique aspect of the computer — the ability to decode natural language — to produce a richer, easier-to-use application. “We said, let’s just throw out the physical nature of calculators and take advantage of computers’ powerful capacities,” Soulver co-creator Zac Cohan says.
Then there’s Flipboard, the iOS app for browsing status updates, pictures and news. Normally, pages in ebooks and emagazines either scroll or flip in emulation of the way print paper does. But Flipboard’s pages do something odd: they pivot at the centre of the page instead of on the left side like almost any print publication. This minimises the rate at which material changes onscreen during the flip, reducing the eye fatigue that comes from scrolling or making sudden full-page swipes.
"It requires far less energy than a scroll or a slide or a screen flash," says Craig Mod, a Flipboard designer, adding wryly: "It’s a sort of a cyberpunk page." Once designers unhinge their imaginations from skeuomorphs, we’ll see ever more subtle, cunning concepts like this.
And if you really need to flip paper pages on your calendar? Buy a handmade one — and hey, get some nice-quality pencils. Let paper work like paper and screens like screens.
Clive Thompson is a columnist in the US edition of Wired and a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine