Why Jony Ive Should Travel Back In Time To Stop Scott Forstall From Ruining Ancient Greek Architecture

What does Apple's Calendar app and this building have in common?

What does Apple’s Calendar app and this building have in common?

There’s been a lot of hullyboo about skeuomorphism in the Mac and iOS community right now. Ever since the debut of iOS, Apple’s software has become increasingly ornamented with unnecessary textures and details that many people consider tacky, such as the fake Corinthian leather in Calendar or the green felt background in Game Center. This style of design is called skeuomorphism, and outed ex-Apple VP Scott Forstall was one of Cupertino’s main proponent for its wide spread use in iOS and OS X.

All signs point to Jonny Ive getting away with a lot of skeuomorphic details in iOS 7, adopting instead a more modern, ‘flat’ design.

The way people talk, though, it’s like skeuomorphism is a unique problem of the digital age. It’s not. In fact, the ancient Greeks had a problem with skeuomorphism too. So before you revile Scott Forstall for using it too much, keep in mind, it’s a design technique as old as civilization.

Dentils_(PSF)

The Ancient Greeks’ version of the reel-to-reel tapes in Apple’s Podcast app.

Today, we think of ancient Greek architecture in terms of marble columns and white temples, but in the earliest days of ancient Greece, buildings were made out of wood instead of marble. That meant ceilings made out of wooden rafters, and the very ends of these rafters would protrude from most buildings.

When the Greeks started building the temples they are known for today, though, they used skeuomorphism to give people a sense of the old and familiar even when looking at this incredible, revolutionary new building technology. Sound familiar?

The most obvious example of ancient Greek skeuomorphism is one particular repeating ornament used by Greeks in the bedmould of their temples’ cornices. When the ancient Greeks started building in stone, they actually continued to carve into their designs a lot of the protruding joints you’d find in wood construction, like where a end of a rafter might “poke” through the other side of an adjacent wall. These were totally non-functional flourishes that were carved into the outside of buildings just to make them look as familiar as wooden buildings, even though they were a completely different technology and form of architecture.

These outcroppings of unnecessary stone are called dentils, and they track back all the way to 500 B.C. The dentil is a major feature in Ionic temple design, and was also employed widely by the Romans (there’s dentils on the Pantheon in Rome) and during the Italian renaissance. Heck, we still use them today, for no reason besides the fact that thousands of years ago, it reminded the Greeks of the way a wood house is “supposed” to look.

So next time you read a story hating on Apple for its penchant for skeuomorphism, maybe try looking at it the other way: Apple’s just being neoclassical.

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  • bdkennedy

    Skeuomorphism has never made any sense to me. The computer generation doesn’t know what a physical leather calendar is. OS X’s calendar is not tangible. You can’t touch or feel it so why replicate it? Microsoft’s BOB showed that skeuomorphism doesn’t work 17 years ago.

  • JoachimArt

    How can you be so sure Jony Ive dont just LOOOOVE skeumorphism ? He never said he hates it publicly. Maybe iOS 7 will be leather, paper and old gizmos bonanza ! :)

  • philbert81

    I hope we don’t go to a flat boring speeding like the windows phone. I love the way calader app looks.

  • Thomas Walker

    Skeuomorphism has never made any sense to me. The computer generation doesn’t know what a physical leather calendar is.

    Really? You think people born in the age of computers if shown a physical calendar would not know what it is? I’ve seen this type of comment over and over again and it makes no sense to me. I never used a reel-to-reel but I know what one is and it makes sense to me how it works.

    The irony of this whole process is that if you think computers are going to change people into not knowing what anything physical is, then what will be left? No humanity, no art, no culture, just pure data. I don’t think this is the future. Our brains are about the same size, shape, and makeup as they were when we killed animals and ate them with our bare hands. There’s no reason to believe that people from now on will live in a totally digital world and everything in the past that was physical can be easily dropped and flattened into a box. Afterall, the reason those objects look like they do, is because brains of about the same size, shape, and makeup invented them long ago.

    This doesn’t mean I’m against what Ive is trying to do. I think Ive isn’t trying to remove skeumorphic elements because he thinks we should all work with pure flat boxes, but because he thinks he can distill the elements to an even purer form that is still familiar to how our brains interpret information and in fact if we were to show an iPad running iOS7 to a caveman, in fact he would be able to use it almost as easily as a digital boy could.

    So you see it’s not to shun the “old”, but to embrace the human brain in it’s purest form.

  • VirtualVisitor

    Jeez. Get a life. Apple constantly changes the look of its systems, and always will to try to attract the fashion-victims who make choices based on looks rather than function. The leather calendar look is due to come around again in about 12 years.

  • bakajiji

    John, don’t you mean Forstall was “ousted” rather than “outed”? I had no idea he was gay!

  • robraden

    “All signs point to Jonny Ive getting away with a lot of skeuomorphic details in iOS 7, adopting instead a more modern, ‘flat’ design.”

    Uhh… you mean getting away FROM, not getting away WITH.

  • robraden

    “All signs point to Jonny Ive getting away with a lot of skeuomorphic details in iOS 7, adopting instead a more modern, ‘flat’ design.”

    Uhh… you mean getting away FROM, not getting away WITH.

  • NHTeaParties

    Sir Jony Ive destroyed Apple’s quality interface. Android called and wants its tackiness back. He had no business destroying the GUI just because. WE LIKE the look, it’s much easier on the eyes. I don’t ever expect to spend money on an Apple product again.

  • NHTeaParties

    Jeez. Get a life. Apple constantly changes the look of its systems, and always will to try to attract the fashion-victims who make choices based on looks rather than function. The leather calendar look is due to come around again in about 12 years.

    Sorry but I cannot wait that long so I’ll just keep mine thank you. AT least I can SEE the freakin’ thing! Whic is more than I can say for that damned calendar in the Cloud.

  • NHTeaParties

    The world is textured for a reason. Our eyes are meant to see textures NOT flat clownlike patches of color that make no sense to the brain after a while.

  • NHTeaParties

    Skeuomorphism has never made any sense to me. The computer generation doesn’t know what a physical leather calendar is. OS X’s calendar is not tangible. You can’t touch or feel it so why replicate it? Microsoft’s BOB showed that skeuomorphism doesn’t work 17 years ago.

    Really? Doesn’t work? Is this why there are 5 pages of negative comments on Ars Technical about iOS7? The reason it’s so much more pleasant is that in the real world things are layered.. our eyes are configured to see 3D not some flat blobs on the screen. This is what makes the GUI so pleasant to use and now so abhorrent.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his girlfriend and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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