CX Insights

The Skeuomorph is Dead, Long Live the Skeuomorph

6 min read

2013 saw a new king of design take the throne. This has been the year of Flat Design. 2012 ended with Microsoft bringing Flat to the mainstream with Windows 8, and Apple revamped iOS a year later. Casting away their skeuomorphic principles of old and refreshing the interface with a Flat approach.

As one of the defining design events of the year, this exemplified the changing trend of digital design. Apple, formerly so staunch in their support for skeuomorphic design under Steve Jobs, opting for the popular kid.

So what exactly is Skeuomorphic design?

Radio buttons, reimagined virtually

Skeuomorph design, is a design practice where real world objects are represented digitally, creating visual metaphors. A basic example being radio buttons; taken from their namesake. These mimic the buttons on old analog radios, where when selecting one preset channel, the other buttons would pop out.

Skeuomorphs are particularly important in UI design, as they provide the user with objects they are familiar with in the real world – increasing familiarity within a system. Further examples include sliders (metaphor for analog sliders), software-based calendars (designed to appear as paper-based calendars) and tablet gestures (turning the pages of a book).

What has changed in the world of Flat Design?

Exactly that: things have been been flattened. Flat Design has its roots in 1950s Switzerland. The ‘Swiss style’ design philosophy emphasizing minimizing, cleanliness and content organisation. Its fundamentals consisting of a grid system for aligning content and San-Serif fonts (ie. Helvetica – Latin for ‘Switzerland’).

What we see now with Flat Design are these principles being applied in the Digital world. The removal of the ‘bells and whistles’, leaving us only what is important: Colour, Shape and Content. A presentation method which is effective at being both minimalist and beautiful. And with the rise of mobile computing, minimalism is a key advantage. Reducing the stress on low power systems.

Limelight app, reimagined for iOS7. Notice how the 3D shelf of the current app is replaced by the seamless flat approach of the new design.

This has come at the expense of the traditional skeuomorph, with its added complexities. Analog clocks have reverted to their digital counterparts. Contours and gradients have been swept away to be replaced by minimalistic, simple iconography.

However, the question is, is flat design really an improvement? Skeuomorphic long reigned due to its simplicity and connections to the real world. The metaphors conveyed instantly recognisable to users. In this new era of Flat design, is there a place for the philosophy of old?

Why we need Skeuomorphic Design

Skeuomorphic design affords us with friendly, familiar features. Providing us with digital representations of real world concepts we are so used to. This has a psychological impact – speeding learning, as well as improving understanding. We draw on and associate prior experiences to instinctively use skeuomorphic devices. The current trend for flat design is removing this.

We don’t have to look back too far in history to see this has happened before, with a real world example:

In the 1970s, the advent of electronic digital watches – and their relative cheapness – saw a surge in demand as everyone sought to join the space age. Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), digital watches provided a new level of precision. They enabled wearers to read the time to the precise second. As a result, users believed timekeeping was more efficient, that they could read the time easier through seeing the exact numbers on the screen. The digital age was now in fashion.

Yet today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a digital devotee. The 700 year old analog face remains prevalent, especially on the more expensive variants. Why?

Once the hype of innovation had subsided, they vanished. Wearers realised the analog display was far more efficient in telling the time. Realising it was far more important to tell the time quickly, rather than precisely. (Just why this is the case can be read here).

“In the digital world, imagine each second representing a droplet of water on a surface. As the numbers keep adding up, you’re constantly doing math to know how much time has passed or how much time is ahead of you—creating a very difficult passage of time relationship.”

This isn’t only the case with watches, but with all time displays. An aircraft cockpit for example, uses analog clocks to ease time reading for pilots. Yet we still use digital displays where we want more than a quick glance – on our phones for example.

A perfect metaphor for what is happening with Skeuomorphic design right now. Though seemingly replaced by Flat Design, it still holds many benefits unique to its philosophy. Benefits such as intuitiveness which made it so popular in the first place.

The watch example perfectly encapsulates how a trend can blanket eyes, and stand in the way of practicality. It may be possible that Flat Design follows this example. That’s not denying Flat design has its uses – but could it be innovation for the sake of innovation? Only time will tell.

Can the two live in harmony?

The ‘pure flat’ approach of Windows 8’s Metro

Both philosophies are certainly distinguishable, and meet various needs between them. The flaws of Flat design were plain to see at the launch of Windows 8. Users had a hard time learning the new interface (not helped by the fact it is tuned for touchscreen). Off screen gestures and functionality had to be discovered. They may be quick and easy for experienced users, but for new ones they proved an annoyance. I’m sure anyone else who has had to ‘learn’ Windows 8 can attest to that.

The complex, yet intuitive, skeuomorphs of Apple pre-iOS 7 relating to their real world counterparts (credit)

Though many commentators say Skeuomorphic design is dead – we’ve heard it far too often this year – the Skeuomorph is still very much alive. It has changed, a lot. Classic ‘Apple Skeuomorph’ design is complex, almost to the point of nausea. Over-complicating elements with textures to give us that real-world feel.

Google’s ‘skeuominimalism, a mix of classic skeuomorphic design and flat design. Simple, descriptive icons. (credit)

As the internet flattened, Google joined in on the fun. Their take, apply named Skeuominimalism in this brilliant article, adds the minimilistic nature of flat design to the intuitive, understandable nature of Skeuomorph. This results in flat, minimalist icons which use real world pictures and object to convey plenty enough information for us to understand.

Proving that, despite the doomsayers, skeuomorphism isn’t quite dead. Like the watch, it may just be waiting for the flat design trend to wear off.

Oliver McGough
Passionate UX Designer and Marketer.