Ayn Rand v. Steve Jobs: the End of Skeuomorphism

I was directed to this New York Times article today which is interesting for two reasons.

First, it presents to the wider masses the ongoing design battle over the appropriateness and usefulness of Apple’s (or more pointedly, Steve Jobs’) fondness of real-life metaphor in their software’s visual style. 

[W]ithin the circles of designers and technology executives outside Apple who obsess over the details of how products look and work, there has been a growing amount of grumbling in the last year that Apple’s approach is starting to look dated.

The style favored by Mr. Forstall and Mr. Jobs is known in this crowd as skeuomorphism, in which certain images and metaphors, like a spiral-bound notebook or stitched leather, are used in software to give people a reassuring real-world reference.

That this pretty obscure design wonkery tête-à-tête is getting mainstream attention is another sign of the growth in significance that interaction design is being given in our society. A welcome sign of it, regardless of which side of the argument you’re on.

But secondly, this line of thought attributed to University of Washington design professor Axel Roesler stood out to me:

Apple’s software designs had become larded with nostalgia, unnecessary visual references to the past that he compared to Greek columns in modern-day architecture.

This architectural comparison is apt, and it immediately recalled Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. I’ve been reading some of Rand’s works as part of an attempt to better understand the outlook of that part of the population who seem to hold her books second only to the Bible in importance. Like the capitalist zeitgeist of Atlas Shrugged, the ideas in The Fountainhead are also reflections of a dominant stream of twentieth century power shifts — in this case, the urban and architectural design schools most often generally referred to as Modernism.

Rand’s protagonist, an undervalued and misunderstood Modernist architect, fights against an architectural old guard who only see value in designs that incorporate heritage styles. The book’s argument against traditional architectural styles is much the same as the one against skeuomorphic software — that function, purity, and efficiency trump warmth, comfort, or culture. 

Now, Modernist and brutalist buildings have their own beauty and place in our history (and as many of the best examples are now being torn down, I’m one of those lobbying for better preservation), but a look at 1940’s to 1990’s before/after photos of nearly any downtown core in North America immediately exposes that we swung too far toward supposed Platonic ideals and too far away from values of human scale, liveability, walkability, and respect for history and place.

Thankfully, our architectural and urban design disciplines seems to be slowly swinging back around to a more nuanced pairing of innovation with the human cultural stream, moving beyond the extremes of the Modernist schools and back toward a newly synthesized point of view that values heritage and cultural aesthetics as not just obstacles to progress or nostalgic crutches clung to by the out-of-touch, but as essential tools for creating quality of life. 

So the question is: is this same pattern now repeating in software? Will we swing too far toward Metro vectors, white space and “Minority Report” gestures, eschewing all old-world interaction metaphors in favour of unadulterated forms, and then find we’ve lost something? We are, after all, merely highly-molded mud that barely a few hundred years or so ago were doing little more advanced than molding other mud into pottery. Will our search for ideal function and design purity cost more than we’ve bargained for?

I wonder if this part of Steve Jobs’ ghost will end up haunting us a little more than most.