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The Touch of the Real: What Apple’s shake-up has to say about reading

Faux-linen is out. Modern industrial is in. Imaginary bookshelves are out, too. The big news at Apple this past week was the ouster of Scott Forstall, one of the chief designers for their mobile technologies. The even bigger news (for readers) is what this will mean for interface design.

Forstall’s replacement is the celebrated designer, Jonathan Ive, who is responsible for much of the sleek, tactilely friendly Apple design. Forstall and Jobs were famous for what we call “remediation” — making new technologies look like older ones. So that trash bin on your desktop? It isn’t really a trash bin, it just looks like one. It’s an old story: the Gutenberg Bible was meant to look like a manuscript. Print didn’t kill handwriting, it just imitated it.

Ive and his crew have disdain for this kind of aesthetic. New things shouldn’t look like old things (or some old things). They should look new.

As I’ve written in my book, the appeal to the new is of limited value. Nothing is ever new. They’re just trading metaphors (“industrial” for “aunts in the salon”). The big issue is the shift in priorities — Forstall’s emphasis was on the way things looked. Ive’s on the way things feel. The real story here is that this is a battle over whether “interface” design should be led by our hands or our eyes. And it looks like hands just won.

It seems like we’re finally beginning to remember just how important tactility is to how we interact with our texts.