Reaction: Why iOS7 is MORE skeuomorphic, not less

“It’s flat, just like they said it would be!”

That was the immediate reaction I saw from one of the tech pundits commenting on today’s introduction of iOS7, Apple’s new operating system for its iPhone and iPad. There have been a lot of rumors recently that Jonny Ive, who took control of Apple’s full design team some months ago, hated skeuomorphic design and the new UI would be redesigned o reflect a more “flat” aesthetic. And yes, skeuomorphic elements such as the felt green tabletop from the Game Center app and drop shadows have been removed, as well as lots of other textures throughout the UI. Flat design clearly won the day.

Not so fast. In my opinion, this new OS is even MORE skeuomorphic than iOS6, in ways deeply integrated throughout the UI. Why do I say that? Read on…

Depth, parallax and layers

One of the first design aspects that they showed in the keynote was how everything was layered. The icons “floated” above the background, providing a semi-3D effect. This depth carried through with a parallax view… the angle of the background image changes based on how you hold the device.

If the OS was completely “flat”, this wouldn’t happen… so, clearly, it’s not. This is skeuomorphic design, applied. Depth is something that we all know and engage with in the real world, and having this depth is not just a cool design flourish – it engages the user and brings them “into” the UI. This layer effect is even more pronounced when you access Notifications, the keyboard, or the new Mission Center app… these panes appear translucent above the primary screen, and you can see the colors and objects below reflected in it. It’s similar to frosted glass, but it’s not “frosted glass” per se… Again, this is a skeuomorphic design element applied in a very subtle way.

Motion and action

The new weather app has animation to reflect the weather. Rain drops, snow, lightning… Instead of icons, it’s the ENTIRE UI. Very similar to the great Weather HD app, this visualization representation current conditions in the real world… Motion is used throughout the OS. UI elements act like objects, just as they had in the earlier version of iOS. It’s interactive, engaging and things work like they would in the real world far more than in other UIs.

3D tabs and cards

if you look at the new version of Mobile Safari, the tabs are listed like cards in a rolodex… except without any stupid “rolodex” UI elements. Again, depth and dimension allows for easy access to open browser windows. The aforementioned weather app continues to treat each location as a “card” that users can flip back and forth – and the global weather view looks like a set of cards lined up in a wallet, much like the Passbook app UI.

And speaking of cards, they have added a gesture in Mail, iMessages and other apps to thumb back and forth to the detail screen… this gesture is, essentially, the same gesture you would use when you draw a playing card. And while the UI doesn’t “look” like a card deck, this gesture “feels” organic… because we have done it before, in real life. That’s skeuomorphism, applied gesturally.

The end of bad skeuomorphism

They didn’t remove all skeuomorphism… they took out all the BAD skeuomorphism. The textures that were there added no value, and instead looked… well, cheap and ugly. The new iOS7 page on Apple.com explains it perfectly: “Conspicuous ornamentation has been stripped away. Unnecessary bars and buttons have been removed. And in taking away design elements that don’t add value, suddenly there’s greater focus on what matters most: your content.”

Skeuomorphic design applies real world elements to assist in learning, understanding, and use. Except for – maybe – the Notes app background, none of the elements that existed in the operating system did that. They have removed those elements, but kept the key concept of making sure that the design aligns with and mimics the real world, to make it a better experience.

And more “obvious” skeuomorphic elements still exist – the world clock and the compass app, for example – because it’s the best way to present that information. A completely flat UI that abandoned real-world elements, wouldn’t present that information as effectively.

I think that what Jonny’s team has done is pretty daring, and, while not perfect, is to be admired. They aimed to improve and refine, and in most cases, they succeed. And, by integrating effective skeuomorphic design instead of abandoning the approach completely and arbitrarily, I think they will do quite well with the only group that matters: users.