Apple executive shake-up could lead to new design approach

Apple executive shake-up could lead to new design approach
Whether they realize it or not, all of those who swipe a finger down from the top of the iPhone's screen to check for notifications are bearing witness to a big sore point within Apple.

There, behind a list of text messages, missed phone calls and other updates, is a gray background with the unmistakable texture of fine linen.

Steven P. Jobs, the Apple chief executive who died a year ago, pushed the company's software designers to use the linen texture liberally in the software for the company's mobile devices. He did the same with many other virtual doodads that mimic the appearance and behavior of real-world things, like wooden shelves for organizing newspapers and the page-flipping motion of a book, according to people who worked with him but declined to be named to avoid Apple's ire.

The management shake-up that Apple announced on Monday is likely to mean that Apple will shift away from such visual tricks, which many people within the company look down upon. As part of the changes, the company fired Scott Forstall, the leader of Apple's mobile software development and a disciple of Mr. Jobs. While Mr. Forstall's abrasive style and resistance to collaboration with other parts of the company were the main factors in his undoing, the change also represents the departure of the most vocal and high-ranking proponent of the visual design style favored by Mr. Jobs.

The executive who will now set the direction for the look of Apple's software is Jonathan Ive, who has long been responsible for Apple's minimalist hardware designs. Mr. Ive, despite his close relationship with Mr. Jobs, has made his distaste for the visual ornamentation in Apple's mobile software known within the company, according to current and former Apple employees who asked not to be named discussing internal matters.

This may seem like little more than an internal disagreement over taste. But Apple venerates design like few other companies of its size, and its customers have rewarded it handsomely as a result. Apple's decisions can influence how millions of people use and think about digital devices -- not only its own but those made by other companies that look to Apple as a standard-setter in design.

Axel Roesler, associate professor and chairman of the interaction design program at the University of Washington, says 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. He said he would like to see Mr. Ive take a fresh approach.

"Apple, as a design leader, is not only capable of doing this, they have a responsibility for doing it," he said. "People expect great things from them."

Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman, declined to comment.

Apple's customers do not seem to have serious qualms about the design choices the company has made as they continue to buy iPhones and iPads at a healthy clip. But within 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 recent years 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.

In contrast, Microsoft, not known as a big risk-taker, has been praised recently for taking greater creative risks in the design of its software than Apple has. It has come up with a visual style that is now used throughout its computer, mobile and game products. It relies heavily on typography and sheets of tiles that provide access to programs and are updated with photos and other online information. It is not yet clear whether this approach will be a hit with people who do not spend time thinking about design.

Bill Flora, a former Microsoft designer who created the earliest prototypes of its new visual style, said Apple had not been innovative enough in the design of its software. "I have found their hardware to be amazing and sophisticated, and I have found their software to be kind of old school," said Mr. Flora, who now has his own design firm, Tectonic, in Seattle. "Their approach really wasn't what I was taught as a designer in design school."

Even internal critics of Apple's software designs say that some references to physical things are still useful. The trash bin on the Mac, for example, is a much-used metaphor for deleting files, one that is unlikely to go away soon. There is also a function in the new Passbook app that runs deleted loyalty and payment cards through something resembling a paper shredder. Some Apple designers see that as a good way of reinforcing the idea that potentially sensitive information has been wiped from the device.

But Apple causes conniptions among designers when its visual metaphors seem outdated or downright archaic. Apple's Podcasts app for its mobile products displays a reel-to-reel tape machine, a product probably few people under 40 have ever seen.

Apple's use of textures representing physical materials is also often ridiculed. In addition to linen, Apple has found opportunities to decorate the borders of its software, including the Calendar app on the iPad and the Find My Friends app on the iPhone, with a tan faux-animal skin that some critics have sarcastically called Corinthian leather, after the upholstery used in Chrysler cars in the 1970s.

The allusions to the past also affect how certain parts of its software function. Its iBooks application organizes electronic books on a set of wood-grained shelves, and the books are thumbed through with a page-turning animation. Some designers see that and similar functions in Apple's software as silly throwbacks to the past, plopped into advanced devices.

"It's like putting horses in front of a car, basically," said Dr. Roesler of the University of Washington.

Handing decisions about software design over to Mr. Ive, who is known almost entirely for his work in hardware, could be risky. One former Apple employee who worked in software for several years said he had never seen Mr. Ive in a meeting and suggested that Mr. Ive would have to work to win credibility among Mr. Forstall's loyalists. This person declined to be named discussing internal matters because he did not want to antagonize Apple.

But those who know him expect Mr. Ive -- known to friends and colleagues as Jony -- to waste little time in putting his own stamp on the look of the company's software, including iOS for mobile devices and OS X for Macs.

"You can be sure that the next generation of iOS and OS X will have Jony's industrial design aesthetic all over them," said a designer who works at Apple but declined to be named as he is not allowed to speak publicly. "Clean edges, flat surfaces will likely replace the textures that are all over the place right now."

© 2012, The New York Times News Service

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