Picture this: it’s 2007, and you just got your first iPhone. You experience the satisfying click of the “slide to unlock” slider, which lights up as you swipe as if a spotlight was shining across it. Once you’re in, the homepage is a collection of richly textured, highly detailed rounded tiles—glossy and almost-real looking—hovering on the screen: you see the unblinking shutter of the Camera app, the pine bookshelf of the Books app, and the unforgettable vintage yellow notepad with leather binding of the Notes app.
If picturing the original skeuomorphic iOS UI design made you nostalgic for the magic surrounding the early days of the iPhone, you’re not the only one. Even though it's nearly a decade and a half since the iPhone launched in 2007, the UI Archive, a new digital archive on Twitter, is celebrating the wonders of Apple’s skeuomorphism that defined the late 2000s—and ushering in a renewed attention to the delightful details we lost in the transition to flat design.
UI Archive’s founder Jordan Singer started UI Archive purely for the love of Apple’s old iOS designs. Singer is a New York-based product designer, self-proclaimed Apple fan, and founder of Diagram, a startup that uses AI to builds design tools for apps like Figma, who had the idea to launch the archive when he stumbled on his friend’s collection of two terabytes worth of Apple product imagery and iOS screenshots.
“I grew up having an iPhone and using that original skeuomorphic era iOS and Mac OS, so I have a lot of nostalgia that brings me back to my younger years,” said Singer. “I think the same is true for a lot of people who love to look back at the incredible attention to detail in effects, styles, and textures in user interface design from that time. It's such a stark contrast compared to today.”
And designers and tech enthusiasts are loving it: the Twitter account, which launched in March, already has over 15,000 followers. As one Twitter commenter put it about the original linen-textured backdrop for the iPhone Weather app: “unpopular opinion: I miss this.”
In interface design, skeuomorphism is a design style that mimics a real object in appearance and experience, in the way Apple’s initial design for the iPhone calculator was based on a typical calculator, or the Game Center drew its lacquered wood and green felt textures from casino tables. The idea was that if these new applications and the technology looked familiar, it would make it easier for users to quickly learn how to use them. But when Apple launched iOS 7 in 2013, people were already aware of how to use a smartphone. So Apple made one of the most visually drastic leaps away from skeuomorphism to flat design, leaving behind the shadows and gradients for minimal, two-dimensional shapes that would define the next decade of digital design.
The rich gallery of UI Archive’s imagery reveals a lot of indulgent user interface details that people now crave, along with some that are probably best left behind in the past. “I don't necessarily miss the intricate wood and leather textures, but I do miss some other really delightful details like the page curl in iBooks or the things that did mimic the real world without being too literal,” said Singer.
“Skeuomorphism was born out of the Photoshop era, which is why we could create the details at that time. It was very much a reflection of our tools and their capabilities,” said Singer. “But in this era, we’re not as experimental because we’re more focused on moving fast and shipping quickly.”
UI Archive is also open to contributions, so anyone can send in their favorite iOS and Mac OS screenshots via UI Archive’s website for a chance to be featured—making it a community of and by design enthusiasts and Apple fans like Singer.
The archive’s popularity makes sense considering the direction digital design is going. With a new era of 3D design upon us, skeuomorphism, once considered cringe-worthy and obsolete, has new relevance: Designers are bringing aughts-era gradients and expressive aesthetics back to life, this time for web3. It might actually be beneficial for more designers and developers to look back at early interface design, and at its enduring lessons in using design to bring familiarity, delight, and a little bit of drama to the users. As another Twitter commenter put it about the leather-bound design of Apple’s Find My Friends app, “I miss skeuomorphism, it was like great pieces of art everywhere.”