Skeuomorphism, Apple, and Ricardo Montalbán's favorite station wagon


Over at Apple, Jony Ive is reportedly pulling back on the skeuomorphism for iOS 7. I'm glad. I don't care for skeuomorphism except in a very few instances, like the 1982 Chrysler Town & Country seen above with Ricardo Montalbán.


  1. Takes all kinds, I guess.  ;)
    We had the fake plastic paneling on our station wagon when I was a kid.  I always hated the way it looked…then it started peeling. Go 80’s!

      1. America’s love for authenticity is so strong that we’ve hunted it more or less to extinction in the wild, forcing us to fall back on farm-raised supplies.

        We still have a daring class of adventurers who search the wilds for new authenticity supplies; but, once found, they tend to be butchered, skinned, and on sale at Urban Outfitters within a few quarters.

      2. It was meant to appeal to Boomer/Greatest Gen nostalgia.  You may notice a similar trend today with the rehashing of certain “muscle” car lines that are designed to evoke memories of late 1960’s muscle cars. 

        I can’t wait for the big, boxy late 70’s-early 80’s cars to become the marketing trend in 20 years.  It’ll be hilarious, or awesome, say, if Nissan releases a Z that looks like a damned Z.

  2. This very issue illustrates what is wrong with Apple’s UI design philosophy. The user should be deciding whether they want skeuomorphic interfaces or not, not Apple.

    1. “The user should be deciding whether they want skeuomorphic interfaces or not, not Apple.”

      Apple does not decide whether I buy their products.

      1. Decisions that Apple (or any company) makes shapes your perceptions on whether to buy their product or not.

        Now this is also manipulated by peers and media but in the end what a company offers, if aligned with your priorities, will cause you to buy.

    2. I agree with you.  That is why I’m not an Apple fan.

      Apple, going back to the days of the original Mac, is not in the business of giving the user choices.

    3. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

      1. Didn’t Ford run into massive trouble because Henry Ford wouldn’t let them even consider a new product line because he knew what was best and didn’t want to give customers a choice other than the Model T, which was perfect and all anyone needed in his mind?

  3. Pffft. The Griswold’s station wagon in National Lampoon’s Family Vacation was _way_ more skeuomorphic.

  4. I know my own needs … and what I need from an operating system, I know I get from this new iOS 7.

    It even comes equipped with rich, Corinthian leather.

        1. I’ve been to Corinth, but apparently, the tanneries were closed.

          Despite the exotic origin suggested by the name “Corinthian leather”, much of the leather used in Chrysler vehicles during the era originated from a supplier located outside Newark, New Jersey.

          1. Yes, I knew all that. My reply to 10xor01, “Where have YOU been”, meant that we all knew there was no Corinthian leather decades ago. 

      1.  Ugh, shudder.  My dad was a “slant-6” man and bought a Volare wagon in that exact color.  What a heap.  It would have lasted longer had it been made of actual wood.

      2. Ha!  I learned how to drive manual transmission in it’s down-market twin, the Aspen.  Three on the floor instead of on the tree. 

  5. They’ve really left this pretty late. iOS just looks so folksy now. It needs a lot more than pulling back on the skeuomorphism.

    1. “Skeuomorphism” would apply to a screen keyboard making typewriter sounds, yes. Synthesisers that emulate instruments are skeuomorphic, waveform-generators aren’t.

      1. Though there is the edge case of digital reproductions of earlier discrete hardware synthesizers, some of which quite slavishly replicate the front panel interface of the synth being, um, synthesized, while others are just supposed to provide sound-equivalent output; but have a control scheme adapted to the computer.

        1.  Yes, I thought about the schizophrenia involved in emulation of hardware synthesisers, but decided to just leave it alone for the sake of expedience. The interfaces for those emulators are VERY skeuomorphic.

      1. I did too, until my newest phone (some Motorola XT907 droid) came with a couple dozen obnoxious ringtones, but without the old-fashioned bell tone.  Damn, I miss it.  It was easy to hear.  The louder tones on my phone are awfully techno-y.

    1. You and most people using the word. Look it up people.. it doesn’t mean what you think it does. It seems that a lot of people have read it once, taken it on board to mean “textures on things” and then gone nuts with reusing the word under their assumed definition of it.

      Drives me freakin’ nuts.

      1. This. Properly applied, skeumorphism gives the user clues about function based on presumed familiarity with earlier real-world analogues. A volume slider is skeumorphic, as is a page corner curl indicating that the user can click or swipe to “turn pages.” 

        These cues are not always chosen wisely — an early version of iTunes had a side-mounted volume “thumbwheel,” which was a functional enough physical design on a Walkman prone to getting jostled around in your pocket, but pointless and counterproductive onscreen.

        While “fake textures on things” may technically fall under the definition, the purely decorative sense is the least useful meaning.

        1. The trouble is that even the ‘cue’ sense becomes pathological pretty quickly when faced with a different set of controls…

          Who else remembers all those early music-player programs whose interfaces were careful bitmap reproductions of 70’s music equipment, complete with knobs that you had to click, hold, and drag in careful little circles to adjust?

          Or(as I was distressed to learn, as recently as yesterday when evaluating an ebook vendor at work), the ‘page corner curl’ leaps off the deep end and becomes a “You have to click on the page corner, hold, and drag(and yes, the text is in the form of a Flash blob, just so that this can be animated) in order to turn the page, because that’s the closest approximation of how you turn a real page. Arrow keys? Pageup/Pagedown? Too unintuitive! We, um, won’t be going with that vendor.

          Sure, God Hates the faux stitched leather of certain iOS applications; but the merely-textural variants(while they make for good snarky screenshots) are actually the tamest in terms of totally ruining the interface. It’s the depraved, baby-eating, abhumans who insist on slavish reproductions of entire physical operations, even when they have plenty of perfectly good buttons to work with, that really ruin the place.

    2. It is the latest One True Way to Design Software Methodology™. Apparently anybody who uses skeuomorphism is evil and hates children while anybody who doesn’t is a fool and wants to punish the elderly. Just ignore it. People got bored with debating vi vs. emacs so they had to move on to a new topic.

      1. People are making confusing arguments; I think the issue is not against skeuomorphs it’s against poorly selected or implemented skeuomorphs.

        The page curl is a pretty efficient ui hint; if the page flip requires a laser focused click and careful drag that’s not a problem with page curl, that’s just a dumb implementation of the control.

        Your computer keyboard is a skeuomorph. There are good keyboards and bad keyboards but it would be silly to rail against keyboards just because bad ones exist. 

        The classic push door with a pull handle that everyone pulls on for a second before they push, that’s a misleading skeuomorph. They even add the word push next to the pull handle sometimes, right? Totally sucks but not an argument against door handles. If you’re building a building make sure they pick a sane door handle  If you’re building or evaluating software make sure the user experience is optimized.

        1. Handles are for handling. You can pull or push a vertical handle (perpendicular to the horizon). A horizontal handle can be used to raise or lower.

          I’m curious to see what a dedicated “pull handle” looks like. Never seen one.

          >Your computer keyboard is a skeuomorph.

          What is it built to resemble? Something other than a board of keys?

          1. You could argue the the “A” is an upside-down Aurochs, but that would be pushing things. Otherwise you are hitting keys to make letters appear — how is that like a fake knob on a flat visual interface?

          2. You can push a handle, but if the door only opens away from you (i.e., “pushwise”) there’s no point to it being there. It’s not really a skeumorph, it’s just a dumb design decision.

          3. I seriously doubt that the door only opens away from you.

            Say you push that door open with a push-plate (hooray!).

            I walk through it.

            Are you going to stand there looking for a pull handle to pull it closed towards you, are you going to atempt to suction your palm against the push-plate and pull it backwards, or are you going to walk away claiming it’s a door that only opens away from you and is not designed to be closed?

          4. I don’t know what exactly you are doubting. That is the door configuration being discussed. You doubt that there exist doors with handles that don’t pull open from the handle-having side? You doubt that doors with push-plates almost always have self-closing mechanisms (making your hypothetical scenario completely bizarre?) I don’t know what to tell you. Go out and use some doors. You don’t appear to be familiar with them.

          5. What am I doubting? I am doubting that there exists a common door that only opens away from you. In my experience, all such doors also close towards you. In such a situation, a push-plate is useless. A “pull” handle serves both purposes. Just as a door-knob can turn right, left, be pulled, and pushed. It’s not just one thing ye daft bugger.

            Self-closing mechanism? No, I don’t encounter them that often. I avoid automatic doors as a rule, preferring to expend a couple calories on my own. And I seldom see doors closing behind me otherwise.

    3.  It refers to things that ape earlier technological versions while no longer being required – I think it was originally architectural, applied to things like the faux wod beams you see under the roofs of stone temples.

    4.  Here’s an edge case:
      Its an authentic chunky rotary phone with real metal bells, a dial tone and everything, yet its only a bluetooth device for a smartphone.  Is it a skeuomorph?
      Would the station wagon still be a skeumorph if they used real wood for the paneling?
      The people need to know.

      1. Not sure that skeuomorphism covers novelty items. It’s a replica rather than taking design elements from prior forms.

      2. Neither of those fit the strict definition of skeumorphism, unless the wood panels hark back to the days of wagons (which is simply silly).

        “Whats that metal thing with wheels? It couldn’t possibly be a vehicle because it’s not made of wood”

  6. I was around back then and I never saw one of these on the road. And I lived just about exactly where the alleged target market of such vehicles was supposed to have lived. Yeah, it was the much maligned K-car series that pulled Chrysler out of the (government backed) hole. They had their problems, but they made a profit even though they were cheap. And then Chrysler went for the minivan and made money hand over fist. It was a more civilized age.

  7. Funny how “skeuomorphism”, and specifically how it was supposedly a bad thing, became such a big deal right around the time that a certain big-time software company who was having its lunch eaten by the skeuomorphic-interface company came out with its latest mobile OS which was determinedly non-skeuomorphic. Just sayin’.

    1. This. The first news I read about iOS 7 lead with “It’s going to look a lot like Windows 8!” And I immediately hugged my knees and rocked. Killing skeumorphic leather and felt and stitching is one thing; turning iOS into a clone of Microsoft’s atrocious “design” is criminally insane. Bright-colours-simple-squares interfaces are PAINFUL.

      1. Just as long as half the text is deliberately skewed off the side of the screen, nothing can go wrong…

        1. As time increases on any discussion of design, the probability of the mention of Comic Sans approaches 1. Once this occurs, no further useful discussion can be had.

  8. The station wagon is like traditional materials having a last flicker of existence before metallic paint took over the world. Along with those split rail fences everyone had back then. Cinder Blocks for the win, Alex.

    1. Metallic paint could also be considered skeumorphic when applied to nonmetallic surfaces, like many (most?) bumpers on cars today. 

    2. The 60s and 70s had been, in design terms, periods of rampant futurism and technophilia. The ’70s were all about metal-flake paint. Cars like the Chrysler Vista Cruzer above were all about nostalgia. And in this case particularly about trying to link one of the US’s shittiest most maligned car brands to the Jeep brand they’d just acquired. But most important was the nostalgia. The early ’80s were future-punk, but the middle and late ’80s were, in the main, Reagan-era Saturday Evening Post bullshit, despite the pockets of resistance that gave us a lot of what we now associate with the ’80s. 

      Having lived thru that nostalgia mess, I get a raging hate-on when I see that faux-wood paneled turdburger of a car.

      1. The Vista Cruiser was an Oldsmobile.  My parents would never have had one if they weren’t GM.

  9.  Skeuomorphism…this is the second time this week I’ve heard that word! The 99% Invisible podcast talked about it with regard to slot machines recently. Great podcast, btw, if you’re into design and architecture.

      1. The person who invented the term hates children who participate in spelling bees. He or she also probably made a bet that they could get a new word on the SATs.

        1. It’s straight derivation from Greek, /skeuos/, and /-morph/. Greek-derived words are often a challenge for spelling, since the spelling isn’t changed to fit modern English reader’s expectations.

  10. I never really cared about it.  It worked.  Anything that has a better interface than the 80’s machines I used (Intel 80286 based), well, it impresses me.

    I just didn’t … notice.  Sorry, Apple – Keep up the Good Work! (and make your laptops more graphics-powerful please, and make iTunes better – i.e. excellent)

    1. Every time @boingboing-318c4c36b0c054314e8d000afb1a007d:disqus types 80’s @boingboing-7eb3c8be3d411e8ebfab08eba5f49632:disqus kills a hamster.

  11. I remember fondly the faux wood grain on my first Atari 2600. IT was truly a hideously ugly time to be alive.

  12. The best product Apple ever made were their user interface guideline books from the  early 1990’s. Too bad no one from Apple (or anywhere else) reads them any more.

  13. Like we don’t know that the Pusateri clan has the number I9 copyrighted and it costs Cory a nickel per use.  Nice try.

  14. This penchant for skeumorphism seems to be a very north american fixation, fortunately (at least as far as I’m concerned) this never really took off in europe(the Morris Minor 1000 Traveller estate used REAL wood!); so much so that up until a few years ago it was quite an accurate way to determine what market a product had been designed for. It seems now that everyone apart from apple – where I guess all the clocks/calendars still say October 5th 2011 – has moved on and is designing for the global marketplace.

  15. I’d just like to say “skeumorphism”. Everybody does.

    I honestly hadn’t heard the word until somebody was telling me it was a bad thing. Personally, I don’t mind it unless it’s getting in the way. The games interface thing on macs, with the green baize and wood look, that was about 40 steps to far.

  16. I didn’t know what skeuomorphism is until I read this article. I can’t say I’ve been given enough information to say if it’s a bad thing or not. I will say that function is far more important to me than form, and in OS X, functionality sometimes takes a hit in the name of form. OS 9 was a marvel of functionality, with a simple and highly efficient black text against white background interface that got the job done without getting in your face.

    With OS X we get hideous interface elements like the Dock, which is an abomination that should have been taken out and shot a long time ago.

    Sorry, but I don’t speak Iconese, and prefer a simple pull down menu with an alphabetical listing of my apps in black text on a white background and icons next to the entries like the old Apple Menu in OS 9.  (For people looking for that old functionality, I can’t recommend Application Wizard enough.) Without 3rd party interface add-ons, I would find wrestling with OS X’s UI a daily frustration.

    Function and form are not necessarily incompatible, and it is possible to successfully blend the two. But function should never suffer for the sake of form.

    1. You can turn off the Dock, though. It’s in one of the pull down menus.

      Turning off OS 9 was a lot trickier. (I admit it. I never cared for OS 9; i thought it clunky and clumsy. Maybe not as bad as Windows, but I still preferred IRIX and BeOS at the time.)

      1. Comparing OS9 to IRIX or BeOS isn’t even fair: While it’s UI may have been nicer than Windows of the period, OS9 was an utter toy technologically…

        No protected memory, only the most primitive multitasking, relatively feeble multi-user capabilities… There is a reason that Apple threw away most of it and bought NeXT to obtain a real operating system.

        1. I’ve used OS9 and IRIX well after their time, and I while 4dwm (and its pastels) is hardly pretty, i would still prefer to work in it – OS9 was indeed a bit of a toy.

          And I still don’t know what to think of CDE – though I love the bizzarre color schemes it ended up with when some engineer deep inside DEC  (or IBM) picked his favourite 80s pastels. :)

        2. I hesitate to call anything useful a toy, and OS9 was pretty useful (industry applications will do that for you). Just not as useful as I needed at the time. Like a wrench that did a few things really well, but other things not so well. Windows? Just another wrench (even if I didn’t like that wrench much, it was still a useful tool to the right person).

          BeOS/UNIX/MacOS are all contemporary peers, but I think it’s fair to compare them. OS9 was pretty crufty, kinda slow, and sometimes unstable if you added lots of extensions. I’d used NeXTStep back in the early 90s, in college, and coveted one of my own. Apple did well getting it, even leaving off Steve Jobs, though I didn’t think so at the time. 

          (My MacBook Pro also now sports a NeXT logo sticker I acquired secondhand a long time ago. Still sticks!)

          1. I wouldn’t dispute that it had some powerful applications, just that as an operating system it was pitifully lacking(though, to be fair, the superior OSes generally had a bit more hardware to work with).

            Even DOS had some pretty powerful applications, and it was so limited that those applications used it as little more than a second stage bootloader, and provided practically everything they needed for themselves, because the OS certainly wasn’t up to the task.

  17. Just popping in to share my word for plastic that looks like leather – bovinyl.

  18. I drove a Cordoba for a while. Apple should slap on some of that Corinthian leather.

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