When A Floppy Disk Icon No Longer Signals 'Save'

Audie Cornish talks with Austin Carr, design and technology writer at Fast Company, about Apple's use of skeuomorphic design. It's when an object retains the look of something old and familiar like the trash or recycling bin icon on your computer. After a recent management shake-up at Apple, Carr says the tech giant might move away from skeuomorphism in the future.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. When Apple recently fired Scott Forstall, the executive in charge of its mobile software unit, a cheer went up among some Apple critics. That's because Forstall championed an approach that has polarized the design community. It's called skeuomorphism. That trash or recycle bin icon on your computer that looks like an old wire trash can? That's skeuomorphic. Ditto Apple's Notes icon, made to look like a yellow legal pad.

It's when an object retains the look of something old and familiar. To some it's quaint and comfortable. To others it's tacky and outdated, unsuited to Apple, a pioneer in aesthetics. For more on this design debate, we're joined by Austin Carr. He writes about design and technology for Fast Company. Austin, welcome.

AUSTIN CARR: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So help us better understand skeuomorphism. Where did it come from? What are some other examples in the digital world?

CARR: Sure. Well, in the digital world, skeuomorphism really dates back to, you know, around the 1980s, when Apple was first introducing its graphical user interface. And the idea was that users were not really accustomed to using computers. They didn't know how to interact with them. So designers had to translate on-screen applications. And the way to do that was to create real-life visual metaphors. So in order to understand where to find your contacts, designers would create a digital rolodex to denote where your contacts were stored.

But more recently, as technology has advanced and computers have become more common place, many designers find this distasteful. And these skeuomorphic design flourishes, such as adding fake leather stitching to a digital calendar or fake wood veneer to a bookshelf app. They find this too decorative and unnecessary to making users understand how the program functions.

CORNISH: Is that partly because some of these metaphors aren't even relevant anymore?

CARR: Yes. I mean, you know, the save icon, for example, that we see on a lot of word processing is, you know, an old floppy disk. And I would really be hard-pressed to find a new customer today that has ever used a floppy disk like we understood in the traditional sense for saving your files and...

CORNISH: And it exists outside the computer realm as well, right?

CARR: Absolutely. You know, everything from electronic cigarettes, which are made to mimic old-world cigarettes with traditional tobacco base, with the filters or, you know, we're coming up on this holiday season when a lot of people during Christmas are going to use electronic candles, which are made to mimic traditional candles with the fake wax dripping down on the plastic or the bulb that's made to look like a flickering flame.

CORNISH: And as we mentioned, Forstall was a big proponent of this, but so was the late Steve Jobs, Apple's co-founder. What was their argument?

CARR: Well, Steve Jobs actually approved skeuomorphism just because he felt it created a nice ambience among the products according to the designers I had spoken with. There is actually one famous example that I uncovered, that when it came to the stitching that you see in the leather calendar app, he'd actually had a designer supposedly come and see his private GV or Gulfstream jet to model that leather from a seat in the jet to actually look like the leather on the calendar application that you use on your Apple products.

CORNISH: So who are the companies out there who are designing, you know, in a totally different way, taking a different approach?

CARR: Well, ironically for a company that is very much considered an engineering company, Microsoft is doing really amazing things with design. Their new product called Windows 8, it's a flattened user interface that's based on color, on motion, on typography, it's tiles. They don't have these unnecessary flourishes. They're not looking to make things more 3-D or look like more glass or wood or plastic. And it's very interesting in this sort of ongoing war between Apple and Microsoft. In software, Apple has always been the forward-thinking one when it comes to design. But in this case, although, you know, a lot of Apple fans will yell at me for saying this, Microsoft is really pushing that paradigm forward and making Apple look outdated, frankly, which is what a lot of designers in the community are telling me now.

CORNISH: Austin Carr is design and technology writer for Fast Company. Austin, thank you.

CARR: Thank you so much.

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