The web design and development industry is percolating with chatter about Skeuomorphism vs. Flat digital design styles. The launch of Apple’s IOS7 has further spiked conversations about this design trend. Should we remove Skeuomorphic (pronounced “skyoo-uh-morf-ik”) design from user-interfaces? If you are new to the conversation, below you will find a brief backstory of what Skeuomorphs are and when it became a popular design technique.
Digital Skeuomorphic Design History
The story of Skeuomorphic design starts Steve Jobs, when he put his first Apple MacIntosh computer on the market in 1984. Jobs started a user interface design trend that escalated until its peak in 2012.
Apple computers were the first widely adopted computer to offer users a graphical user interface (or GUI). Previously, users needed to know command line code to operate the software. GUIs created a new way to interact with computers, using visual elements in our computer’s user interface to be the touch points for making requests.
What is a Skeuomorph
The trend that was made popular by Apple’s first GUI, was a very literal visual communication style, where the design elements matched real life objects. For example, your computer’s operating system probably has a trash can or recycling bin icon to throw files away. These familiar visual cues are designed to make users more comfortable operating their machines.
The Design Evolution
Designers are now questioning the high level of realism used in web design. Over the years, UIs have become highly realistic. The iPhone compass app is a perfect example of a highly stylized design that makes for a stunningly similar experience to holding an actual, historical compass.
We have become very tech savvy in comparison to 1984. I, along with many web designers, feel that now is the time for real world objects in digital design to be simplified. Designing with less emphasis on mirroring an object will free us from the limitations created by Skeuomorphic design. Added textures, drop shadows and visual tricks should not be more important in the design process than fundamentals such as clarity, loading time and consistency with other UI element.
For example, a calendar icon no longer needs added details like rich leather texture and silver metal rings to make users comfortable using and locating the app. Digital calendars are being hindered by their printed likenesses, which are stuck with a one month per page format.
Recent product launches sparked this design debate. Google’s design team has been one of the industry leaders, pushing flatness and connectedness as core design ingredients. Microsoft’s recent launch of Windows 8 showcases a flattened design style throughout their operating system. Apple’s release of IOS 7 and future release of OSX 10.9 will be following Microsoft’s lead. The fact that the biggest industry players are consciously adjusting their product’s design style is a milestone in web design that we all need to recognize.
Skeuomorphic Design Should Not Vanish
Skeuomorphism plays a strong supporting role in digital design. Icons and navigation with graphic cues are still very useful in speeding up recognition time or adoption of an app by new users. Gmail’s trash, folder and tag buttons above the inbox, are great examples of skeuomorphs that should not be removed. Digital designers should continue to use skeuomorphs but only when they are impactful for their audience.
Wunderlist task management app uses a bright red ribbon graphic nicely in their app icon and welcome screens. The woodgrain background and realistic ribbon add a unique flair to the look of the app. Once the app is up and running, the main elements consist of title bars and a side navigation menu, neither of which were cluttered by ribbon detailing. I consider this a smart design decision. By limiting the use of skeuomorphic design, clarity for the app’s core functionality was enhanced. Without the skeuomorphic touches, Wunderlist’s to-do app would be subject to homogenization.
The “to skeu or not to skeu” conversation will surely continue. Where the conversation needs to go, is beyond a stylistic argument. I see the deeper meaning of this buzz around the topic, as being an industry’s excitement over design progression. Whether or not Skeuomphorism is opted for in a design, the end product needs to be appealing and user-friendly. We should all look less at what design technique is being employed so we can better see which aspects of design are advancing. I have a suspicion that progression of interface design will become the most important piece of the skeuomphor conversation.