On Apple’s Design Aesthetic: When Delight Turns Patronizing

Found this fascinating post by way of Kottke.org, it accurately describes something that has bugged me about areas of OS X Lion, specifically iCal.

Apple’s aesthetic dichotomy | Made by Many

I use iCal every day, all day, and when I opened it for the first time on Lion I felt annoyed and vaguely patronized by the ripped pages, bogus leather stitching, drop shadows, faux texture, overly soft colors and superfluous animations. Here’s the funny bit. I’d been running the iOS 5 beta on my iPad for a while before I jumped to Lion, so I recognized this new look for Calendar.

And yet, somehow, on the iPad, it wasn’t as patronizing.

One reason I can think of is that I don’t take the iPad very seriously as a computing device because it simply isn’t a serious computing device.

Another reason that makes sense is that iOS devices are new in the pantheon of computing, and Apple has done fantastically well convincing people (correctly) that they already know how to use an iPad and iPhone. Because touchscreen devices are relatively new, Apple focused their software design on comforting users with “delightful” and “emotional” connections. These are words you’ll find in the iOS Human Interface Guidelines (HIG).

If you read the HIG, you’ll find passages like this:

When appropriate, add a realistic, physical dimension to your application. 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. For example, people instantly know how to use the realistic address book that Contacts on iPad portrays.

On the iPad, it does feel appropriate to have a realistic address book, primarily because I can hold it in my hands and touch it like I would its physical analog. Not so much with my laptop, which I don’t interact by touching and swiping in the same manner.

Therein lies the rub.

Emotionally, I might appreciate these realistic easements on a touchable device, but they just patronize me on a keyboard/mouse one. Even if I didn’t have a ton of experience using a traditional computer (can’t believe I’m calling it that), these design elements wouldn’t translate as well on non-touch devices, simply because the input mechanisms aren’t the same.

Anyway, add this to my growing list of objections to the coming age of touchscreen devices.

A nice bonus, if you read the post I linked above, you’ve learned a new word: skeuomorphism.

Thoughts? Find the comments.




  1. Interesting observation about the difference between a touch interface and traditional keyboard/mouse combo. I tend to agree with you, flipping the pages of a faux-realistic address book or calendar on iPad feels natural whereas on a laptop the extra fluff is distracting. Same works the other way around: I find myself irritated when I *can’t* move forward with a swipe on iPad when the UI suggests such an affordance, but have to tap arrows or other similar navigation elements instead.

    I assume you’ve found the instructions of removing the leather from iCal? Here they are for anyone else interested: http://www.simpleandusable.com/news/how-to-remove-the-faux-leather-in-ical-for-os-x-lion.html
    Someone even did an installer for the task:

    Edit: PS. Small typo on the first line in the domain name, it’s kottke.org

  2. My first thought when reading your post was to disagree, and I was prepared to argue that the faux leather look on this generation of devices is similar to the look of a folder on the older generation of devices – just executed better.

    Then I clicked through to James Higgs’ post and looked at the third picture. It’s jarring to see faux leather and stitching on an iPhone app when it’s married with the message “You are not following anyone’s location.” It’s two different things that don’t mix, kind of like chocolate and pepperoni pizza. (Of course, I don’t think that chocolate and peanut butter mix, while some do.)

    At some point I want to dive into Higgs’ differentiation between skeuomorphism and metaphor, since this directly addresses the original example that I was going to cite. (In Higgs’ terms, a folder icon is a metaphor because it represents a concept, but stitching on an OS X calendar app is skeuomorphic because there is no logical reason for the stitching to be there.)

    For a pro-skeuomorphism view, see this Quora thread http://www.quora.com/What-are-the-advantages-of-skeuomorphic-interfaces – this thread also directed me to Aaron Weyenberg’s October 18, 2010 post http://aaronweyenberg.com/699/is-realistic-ui-design-realistic

  3. Was watching the 60 Minutes bio of Steve Jobs’ biographer, and another segment was an interesting iPad use case:  Autistics and Aspergers.  In other words, people who have severe problems emotionally connecting with others, often to the point of not being able to communicate at all, suddenly can with iPad apps.

    @John, I like your faux archaic background on your sites, except when they load slow.

    It seems to be real common to have old style phone bell ringtones these days.

  4. IOS does carry a lot more of that design emotion that Jobs conjured when he used words like magical. It does stand in stark contrast to the industrial design of the hardware.

    You can find visceral reactions to Android and its lack of emotional design when you read reviews by iOS users.

    Interesting study.

  5. I think the difference is thus: the folder is a metaphor for files, but if opening the folder triggers tortured animation and ruffling noises of papers, then it’s skeumorphic.

    Overdoing realism without any real benefit to the user seems to fit nicely in my head. While we’re on folders, I noticed immediately in Win 7 that the icons were a bit too artsy, which makes them feel a bit tortured.

    I watch Project Runway, and often the critiques include “too literal” when clothes have taken more than inspiration from something. 

    It’s highly personal and emotional, but wasted design like the above makes me feel patronized.

  6. Great point. I share the same annoyance w convergent interfaces, e.g. those that make a blog render to all browsers like a magazine. Can’t recall who does that, but it makes things unreadable on a traditional keyboard/mouse interface.

    Frankly, I’m not removing the leather bc a) it’s not upgrade safe and b) Apple should know better. They won’t change it, just like they won’t stop trying to converge iOS w OS X, but I’m going to resist and complain to the bitter end.

    The next five years are going to be very painful for power users as touch invades every interface.

  7. Real leather on the iPad only please. This is serious (judging by the price): http://www.mrporter.com/Shop/Accessories/Cases_and_Covers/iPad_Cases

  8. I just installed Mountain Lion (straight from leopard) and find all this horrific. There’s a great article from some time ago by Clive Thompson which makes a point on secular design methods being implemented in today’s technology without thinking outside the box. The Calendar and Contacts apps are a perfect example of this, and I’m surprised that Apple are still stuck on this ancient system and whats more with a patronizing design that is targeted toward a 5 year old. Read here: http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2012/03/ideas-bank/clive-thompson

    I come from the OS 7 era, when there would be so much excitement for the next OS that you’d try to download it illegally in advance. Nowadays I just try to keep my machine as far behind as possible.

  9. Wow, Leopard to ML is a huge jump. I’ll bet all the touch-friendly features are driving you crazy. Great read, thanks for sharing it.

    I too remember the old days of System 5, 6 and 7, each met with anticipation.

    My hope is that skeuomorphs will soon disappear as real-life analogs become obsolete. Think of icons. Save as a disk, a sheet of paper as new, a pencil for edit, the clipboard for copied/cut text, a folded map, all of these are items of an older era.

    Maybe younger designers will correctly drop these and move on to create modern design. After all creating a comfort level with computers isn’t really necessary any more.

  10. ‘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.’

    Say, doesn’t that sound just like some english interpreters written in BASIC 30 years ago?

    Some features need to die. http://editorial.autos.msn.com/blogs/autosblogpost.aspx?post=e29f4907-f964-45f5-818a-69a45340e1e4

    (and some need to come back, like being able to use html tags in these posts).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.