The way something looks, tells us how it works.
Once upon a time computers filled whole rooms. They were hulking great metal boxes bristling with dials, gauges and buttons. They hummed, clattered and whirred while the valves glowed.
Over time, machines have become smaller and more powerful, we have more computing power in our pockets that they used to send the first men into space. As they become more commonplace these have become simpler to operate. Gone are the dials, switches and clunky keyboards operated by bespectacled engineers. We are living in a world of sleek displays that respond to our touch and gesture – so simple and intuitive that a child can use it.
The reason why children pick up on the gestural interface of iPads and tablets is because they have nothing to compare them against – grown ups however can struggle as we have made the transition from the physical analogue to the digital world. A world where all the things we used to click, switch, flip and push have been replaced by a single smooth surface.
All around us the design of everyday things gives us clues how they work. A handle on one side of a door and a plate on the other tells us whether to push or pull it.
But how do designers do it in the digital domain without resorting to massive instruction manuals?
One design technique used is known as Skeumorphism.
Steve jobs was a big fan of skeumorphism which is why it is so prevalent in the earlier iterations of iOS. He believed that computers should be so simple that anyone could master them instinctively so he championed this design style where digital elements looked like real things that we were all familiar with and which gave us clues as to how they worked.
Because we no longer had buttons and switches we needed pictures of buttons and switches that changed shape to show us that our mouse click or screen tap had the desired effect.
This design style fell out of favour with the design community because it was used so very badly – it stopped being about giving the user simple clues about how an app functioned by referencing its real world counterpart and became a ridiculous wood veneered, brushed chrome, hand-stitched leather monstrosity.
As tablets and smartphones became common place these bizarre representations became unnecessary and tacky. Now that we know how to use them intuitively with swiping, pinching and tapping; the latest user interfaces have evolved to feature a much simpler flat design aesthetic. With the launch of iOS8 it looked like Jonny Ive and his design team at Apple had finally said farewell to the retro kitsch of skeumorphism (pronounced skyoo-uh-mawrf-izm by the way) and banished it to the archives of design history but apparently not.
We are on the brink of a skeumorph revival.
Wearable technology represent an entirely new class of device – You can use them to monitor your health, pay for your coffee and control you phone, these devices could take any form but they look like watches because we are familiar with watches. The change of form factor meant that the designers of the Apple watch had to come up with a whole new way of controlling the digital interface so they have repurposed the traditional crown (which we used to used to wind our watches up or change the time) as a digital crown – once again retaining ornamental design cues from the original.
They have even referenced a selection of real world watch faces from Rolex to Mickey Mouse as a way of saying Don’t Panic, everything is going to be ok. This futuristic communicator that can read everything from your email to your pulse to your bank account will eventually seem as commonplace as the Swatch watches we loved as teenagers. And when it is, maybe you won’t need to think of it as a watch to make sense of it any more and everything will be flat again.