The Shadow of Skeuomorphism

8 March 2019

A major aspect of the “modern” design language of iOS devices from the iPhone X onward has been the use of gestures in lieu of physical buttons. The iconic Home button was replaced by a set of swipes from the bottom edge of the display: up for the Home screen, a drag up and pause for Multitasking, and so on.

Though I’m still holding on to my iPhone 7 at least until the 2019 iPhone refresh cycle, I have tested each of the “modern” iPhones extensively in Apple Stores, and I’ve come to the conclusion that these gestures are indeed superior to their predecessor.

I’ve also been thinking about why I feel this way. And I believe I have an answer: skeuomorphism is intuitive design, and gestures are inherently skeuomorphic.

Consider the gesture for going home on an iPhone X or later. As the user swipes up from the bottom of the screen, there is a direct response from the interface — in real time, the app minimizes back into its Home screen icon. This is skeuomorphic because the app window behaves like a physical thing being manipulated by the user’s thumb.

Even if you disagree with the semantics of whether this qualifies as skeuomorphism, it’s undeniably more intuitive and understandable than a physical button. With a button, there’s a disconnect between what the user does and what happens on screen. That’s the very reason the design trend of the past three years or so has been to give devices as high a screen-to-body ratio as possible, even if it means eliminating buttons in the process. Most Android phones have a set of software buttons that perform the same functions as their physical counterparts, but Android releases are beginning the transition to a gesture-driven interface paradigm as well.

Skeuomorphism was murdered in iOS 7, but its ghost lives on in the modern iPhone and iPad. (I’m a big fan of the iPad’s gestures as well — on the iPad mini on which I type this, I only use the Home button to wake the device and scarcely ever for anything else.) The left-edge swipe to go back in apps such as Messages and Safari is another instance of skeuomorphism because it treats the different pages as physical layers that the user essentially “peels back.” If not in appearance, iOS is very skeuomorphic in functionality.

I wish gestures were adopted more widely by developers and in more of Apple’s system apps. For example, Bear, my writing app of choice, uses a swipe down to dismiss settings windows. In the iOS Mail app, sending a message causes the message card to drift upward off the screen; why not have the user swipe up to send a draft?

Skeuomorphism is intuitive, understandable. The Home button was perhaps the most intuitive physical button ever, with just the right balance of utility and simplicity. But again, every button creates a disconnect between the user’s action and onscreen responses. Gestures simply make more sense. If back in 2007 Steve Jobs had given people a choice between otherwise identical iPhones with either a Home button or the current gesture system, I believe the gestures would have been the more popular choice. We’ll never know, though.

Jony Ive may have buried skeuomorphism in an unmarked grave six years ago, but iOS borrows more from physical elements than we often realize. The beauty of skeuomorphism is that you don’t think about it; the best design often goes unnoticed. As it should.