Matt Gemmell

Tail wagging

9 min read

Last year, Jony Ive was interviewed in the London Evening Standard. It makes for interesting reading (despite the awful title).

Our industry is in the throes of an aesthetic shift. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the stitched leather and wood of iOS; at the other, the stark, ascetic information-spaces of Windows Phone. It’s more than a change of fashion: I think it highlights our continuing struggle to understand how to design and build products.

In that context, one seemingly offhand remark of Ive’s really struck me:

One of the things that really irritates me in products is when I’m aware of designers wagging their tails in my face.

The context of the quote is that Ive is talking about overly-embellished design; he’s railing against clutter, and arguing for simplicity – whilst debating what simplicity actually means in a practical sense.

Our goal is simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way. […] Get it right, and you become closer [to] and more focused on the object. For instance, the iPhoto app we created for the new iPad, it completely consumes you and you forget you are using an iPad.

For Ive, simplicity is about immersion: becoming so engaged with the task or experience that the device disappears. The iPad becomes a stack of photos, or a novel, or a calendar. A noble and sensible goal.

Enter skeuomorphism, the term du jour.1 At first glance, making the interface visually resemble a physical object seems like a reasonable way to create that immersion. But it’s not that simple.

Primacy vs context

Ive is making the point that whilst embellishments (like skeuomorphic design elements) can be perceived as clutter, that’s not the core problem. The actual issue is that such designs wrongly focus on analogy rather than essence: a paper book itself, rather than the novel inside.

We forget that physical objects are also just specific embodiments – or presentations – of their content and function. A paperback book and an ebook file are two embodiments of the text they each contain; the ebook isn’t descended from the paperback. They’re siblings, from different media spheres, one of which happens to have been invented more recently.

The biggest intellectual stumbling-block we’re facing is the fallacy that just because physical embodiments came first, they’re also somehow canonical. The publishing industry is choking itself to death with that assumption, despite readily available examples of innovative, digitally-native approaches.2

Designing a digital embodiment of content (or a tool) in terms of a corresponding physical object tends to happen for one of two reasons:

  1. An attempt to make the (newer) digital object more familiar.
  2. A failure of imagination.

The latter reason is often dressed up as the former, and taken to fetishistic extremes to compensate for the inherent lie that it perpetrates. That’s Ive’s tail-wagging: a self-conscious, and possibly gratuitous, focus on form without due respect to function or essence.

You can make a lot of arguments for tail-wagging, of course. “We can capitalise on what people already know”. “Familiar objects are less intimidating, especially to non-technical users”. “The physical analog informs the digital design”. They’re all true, to varying extents. That’s the point at which many designers and developers stop thinking.

The thing is, those arguments are also all untrue, to varying extents, because the digital world isn’t like the physical world. An iPad demonstrably is not a book, and doesn’t behave like one. Digital embodiments have their own unique strengths and weaknesses in comparison to physical ones, and metaphors from one world can only be stretched so far before breaking in the other. Usually, the seams appear quickly.

That’s what Ive is talking about, I think. He’s not saying that skeuomorphic or embellished design is “bad” in any absolute sense, but rather that it’s false. It’s obviously false on the visual level, but the issue runs much deeper: it’s false because it implies that you can generalise experiences from different realms of interaction. It’s making promises that not only inevitably fail to deliver in some way, but also actually compromise the uniqueness, and quality, and essence of what you’re creating.

It’s logical to now ask the question: which is more important? Some kind of conceptual ‘purity’, or actual usability? It’s a valid question. It’s also probably a Straw Man, at least partly.

Truth in design

There’s a question I try to ask myself when I’m creating something: “Is this true?”

I define truth here not as factual accuracy, but as fidelity to both intent and embodiment. A design is true if it fulfils its requirements judiciously, and yet surprises and delights its intended audience. An app is true if it has a purity of vision and focus, and serves its intended customers on their terms. A piece of writing is true if it resonates with the people who read it – even if the details must be changed in order to better do that.

Truth, in this sense, is the opposite of betrayal, or carelessness. It’s the antithesis of compromise, for any reason except making something as good as possible.

I’m also using “true” to mean essential; not in the “required or indispensable” sense, but rather fundamental and elemental. Containing everything that should be, and nothing else. Take a look at your nearest Apple product, then think of a competing device. In all likelihood, only the Apple product is true, and you can immediately sense that.3

It’s another thing that Ive feels strongly about.

Our competitors are interested in doing something different, or want to appear new - I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us - a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better. Committees just don’t work, and it’s not about price, schedule or a bizarre marketing goal to appear different - they are corporate goals with scant regard for people who use the product.

We’re all familiar with products that are the result of misguided goals. That’s not innovation; it’s more like innobation:4 unproductive, aimless differentiation for its own sake. Onanistic design. Tail wagging.

Thus we arrive back at skeuomorphism, and the justifications offered for it.

Great experiences are the sum of multiple factors. Any one thing being off can ruin the overall effect. Content and context, focus and environment: they’re inseparable and necessary parts of the whole experience.

Software experiences aren’t just software; they’re also about the device. Alan Kay was right: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” We can’t literally do that, but we can accept that the hardware is part of the user’s context when using our software. The two exist in symbiosis, to create the user’s context.

iOS 7 will be unveiled soon, and rumours abound that Jony Ive’s influence will push it further along the spectrum towards a flatter, more elegant, more elemental presentation style – a ‘backlash’ against skeuomorphic overindulgence, as the press would gleefully have us believe, as if it were all simply a matter of personal taste. iOS 7 may indeed have such an appearance, but anti-skeu won’t be the sentiment behind it.

Currently, I think that there’s an inherent tension between iOS and its devices. The aesthetics of the OS have never quite fulfilled the stylistic promise of the hardware design, and I think that’s probably intolerable to Jony Ive.

Much of the lavishness of iOS (and its imitator, Android) feels like an artefact of the desktop era; a time when we were all still learning how to think about computing devices. By contrast, Windows Phone leaps to the other extreme, being as different as possible for the sake of it. Clear boundaries, sleek lines, and a kind of overt zen futurism.

It reminds me very much of Ive’s (and his hero Dieter Rams’) hardware design. Purely in terms of complementary aesthetics, the iPhone is the best Windows Phone device in existence. But I digress.

Adolescence

Our industry isn’t young anymore, but it’s still full of fear about whether so-called non-technical people will be able to use its products. I think we’ve been trying to get to less adorned, more information-centric interfaces for quite some time, but we’re still making the same tired old arguments from the golden age of human-computer interaction, about how humans need faux three-dimensional cues about the affordances of on-screen objects. Buttons apparently have to look “pushable”, or no-one will push them.

The reality is more nuanced. Our tastes, and capabilities, have moved a bit beyond screamingly-obvious knobs and dials. We don’t need drop-shadows to encourage us to poke at something. All we need is an invitation, in the form of icons or labels or animations which imply functionality, and a consistency of presentation which allows us to make a good guess about what we can interact with.

Modern software interfaces are already loaded with abstract interfaces that aren’t presented skeuomorphically. We pinch to zoom into photos, and we swipe to move between horizontally-tiled pages of data. We tap and hold to display contextual menus, and we’re accustomed to layouts reflowing when we rotate the device.

Children don’t seem to be having problems grasping those concepts, even if Jakob Neilsen thinks they should. They’re not confused by interactive data-surfaces; they’re frustrated when actual, printed content in the physical world doesn’t respond the way they now expect it to.

Intuitiveness has become unhelpfully conflated with familiarity. The reasoning is simple enough: things that are already familiar don’t have to be re-learned, so we assume that they’re more “intuitive”. That’s a big assumption, but we treat it as if it’s fact.

Sometimes, familiar things aren’t as intuitive as they could be, and a new, unfamiliar thing might be more so. Another possibility is that a new thing might be equally intuitive, but also have other benefits which justify its initial unfamiliarity. In either case, intuitiveness cannot be divorced from context.

Skeuomorphic design is a pernicious example of the false dichotomy between what’s unfamiliar and what’s intuitive. We don’t need a shadowed jewellery-box of bauble-like icons in order to grasp the essence of the interface. “Tappability” is no longer measured in simplistic terms of apparent physical affordance. The very non-physicality of software interfaces allows us flexibility when conceptualising and investigating them. Skeuomorphism, however well-meant, can all too easily become a cognitive straitjacket.

Nobody is arguing that a notepaper icon might be easier to locate when the user wants to write down some text, or that a telephone handset is much less intimidating than an audio waveform or some other abstract symbol. That’s reasonable, and fair enough up to a point.

But the issue is that, inevitably, we don’t practise restraint. It’s difficult to do so with an approach that celebrates excess, inspirising designers to actually disdain others’ work for lack of realistic shadow-casting, texture effects, or other such monumentally point-missing trivia.

The reality is that skeuomorphism enshrines and validates a failure of vision, and even worse, a failure to capitalise on the medium. That’s a betrayal of a designer’s implicit duty of trust to make something that is the best, and to treat all other goals as secondary. I think that’s a responsibility that Ive feels very strongly. I doubt that anyone has ever had to remind him of it.

Any backlash against embellished design itself is by definition misguided. The deeper problem is injudicious design, which excessive skeuomorphism can be emblematic of. Design which falsely promotes one embodiment over the essence of content and function. A lack of creativity and insight, masquerading as a deliberate aesthetic choice.

That is the issue, and that’s what is anathema to people like Jony Ive – and probably to you too.


  1. Using design elements that mimic other materials or objects, such as yellow notepaper in a software application, or wood textures on plastic.

  2. The Magazine being the primary one.

  3. This idea of “designing for best” was the focus of my Enduring Design article in The Loop Magazine.

  4. Not a real word; my own portmanteau of innovation and masturbation.