The Future of Nostalgia

Published by Bruce Poulsen, Ph.D. in Reality Play

We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it.

- George Eliot

While the recent release of the much anticipated Windows 8 was on the minds of most throughout the technology world, a major shakeup within Apple was unfolding in Cupertino. As reported in The New York Times this past week, the company fired longtime Steve Jobs enthusiast, Scott Forstall, the head of Apple’s mobile software development. Mr. Forstall was responsible for the nostalgic design features throughout Apple’s mobile operating system. From the gray linen background on iPhone’s notification screen to the faux veneer bookshelves of iBooks, Mr. Forstall’s signature has been ever-present. In his place, Apple has installed industrial designer Jonathan Ive, the lead hardware designer of many of Apple’s best known products, including the MacBook Pro, iPad, and iPod. In contrast to Mr. Forstall’s ubiquitous references to the past (like a reel-to-reel tape recorder that can be seen operating in the background of the Podcasts app), Mr. Ive is known for his minimalist, sleek, and functionally clean designs.

Before dismissing this as simply a bit of provincial silicon valley gossip, consider the following: As the standard bearer when it comes to product design, Apple’s shift from Mr. Forstall to Mr. Ive represents a likely shift in an overall aesthetic to which we have become accustomed (if not wearied). Industry insiders–particularly software designers–have long complained about Apple’s obsession with retro gimmickry. There is even a term that describes the design philosophy that has characterized Apple’s approach: skeuomorphism. A skeuomorph, according to the OED, is a “derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.” As Nicholas Gessler has said, it is making new designs look “comfortably old and familiar.” Hence, the suede desk calendar of iCal (complete with the remains of ripped off pages), the casino-like atmosphere of Game Center, or the gratuitously nostalgic templates in Pages, Keynote, and other Apple wares (seriously, a chalkboard background?).

By all accounts, the design aesthetic that Mr. Ive will bring to Apple is one of clean lines, flat surfaces, and obvious functionality, and we are likely to see the retro throwbacks begin to disappear. The just-released Windows 8 shows very little of the nostalgic design of Apple’s iOS, and may be (gasp) paving the way into the future.

Published by Bruce Poulsen, Ph.D. in Reality Play

We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it.

- George Eliot

While the recent release of the much anticipated Windows 8 was on the minds of most throughout the technology world, a major shakeup within Apple was unfolding in Cupertino. As reported in The New York Times this past week, the company fired longtime Steve Jobs enthusiast, Scott Forstall, the head of Apple’s mobile software development. Mr. Forstall was responsible for the nostalgic design features throughout Apple’s mobile operating system. From the gray linen background on iPhone’s notification screen to the faux veneer bookshelves of iBooks, Mr. Forstall’s signature has been ever-present. In his place, Apple has installed industrial designer Jonathan Ive, the lead hardware designer of many of Apple’s best known products, including the MacBook Pro, iPad, and iPod. In contrast to Mr. Forstall’s ubiquitous references to the past (like a reel-to-reel tape recorder that can be seen operating in the background of the Podcasts app), Mr. Ive is known for his minimalist, sleek, and functionally clean designs.

Before dismissing this as simply a bit of provincial silicon valley gossip, consider the following: As the standard bearer when it comes to product design, Apple’s shift from Mr. Forstall to Mr. Ive represents a likely shift in an overall aesthetic to which we have become accustomed (if not wearied). Industry insiders–particularly software designers–have long complained about Apple’s obsession with retro gimmickry. There is even a term that describes the design philosophy that has characterized Apple’s approach: skeuomorphism. A skeuomorph, according to the OED, is a “derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.” As Nicholas Gessler has said, it is making new designs look “comfortably old and familiar.” Hence, the suede desk calendar of iCal (complete with the remains of ripped off pages), the casino-like atmosphere of Game Center, or the gratuitously nostalgic templates in Pages, Keynote, and other Apple wares (seriously, a chalkboard background?).

By all accounts, the design aesthetic that Mr. Ive will bring to Apple is one of clean lines, flat surfaces, and obvious functionality, and we are likely to see the retro throwbacks begin to disappear. The just-released Windows 8 shows very little of the nostalgic design of Apple’s iOS, and may be (gasp) paving the way into the future.

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