The rise and fall of skeuomorphism

Here at BEAR, one topic of debate has been doing the rounds recently: the issue of skeuomorphism, the use of real-world metaphors in on-screen design.

You’ve probably noticed the proliferation of this type of design during the last decade or so. First the ‘flat’ design style of the early internet gave way to sheens and glass effects, and now it’s hurtling towards all out computer-generated replications of real-world physical objects.

Maps of Clerkenwell

Skeuomorphism is not a new idea. This type of design has been around for many years (albeit executed more simply and in moderation), appearing in the earliest interfaces to help users understand unfamiliar objects and concepts. And it’s fair to say this reasoning still holds true today.

The issue now is, with screens so advanced and processing power so good, interface designers have gravitated towards using visual and behavioural metaphors for almost everything.

The most visible proponent of this is probably Apple. Think of the page turning effects in iBooks, or the stitched leather in the Calendar app, or the torn paper leaves in Notes.

We’re fully Appled up here at BEAR – desktop computers, phones, and the odd iPad – and for many years have taken as read that Apple’s interface design is simple, beautiful and human, and therefore the best for our studio. Once upon a time that was true, but that was a while ago. So, the question is: has skeuomorphic design gone too far? In fact, aren’t we now familiar enough with these intangible ideas, these digital gestures, interactions and behaviours, that there is no need for skeuomorphic graphical devices at all?

That is certainly the belief that most of the design industry now seems to hold. There is a palpable backlash to skeuomorphism bubbling away on Twitter, blogs and in general design discourse.

Most notably, and ironically, Windows 8 now represents the other end of the scale. Its simple, clean tiles are the antithesis of the glassy hotchpotch of icons that appear on Apple’s iOS. Somewhere in the middle is Android. Its parent, Google, has embraced the ‘simple life’ throughout its history, recently demonstrated when its new Maps app was made available on iOS. Its clean, flat panels contrast greatly with the bevels and gradients of the old Apple Maps.

One person here at BEAR has expressed the relief he felt picking up a Samsung handset in a phone shop and playing with the simpler interface and icons. It highlighted for him the tired, cluttered experience of iOS.

However, another has wondered, on seeing some freshly redesigned popular websites, that perhaps there is a trade off between the sometimes overly fussy design of the past and this new, simpler design. Is some richness and warmth being lost to sterile, colder interfaces?

For my part, I don’t think skeuomorphic design is quite dead. Well, maybe the skeuomorphism that Apple is now peddling. After all, since Sir Jony Ive has taken over duties in Apple’s Human Interface team, we can probably expect things like faux leather, stitching and page turning to go in the near future. Something most design professionals would welcome, myself included.

But the idea of distinguishing, say, between interactive and non-interactive elements on a page is still relevant. In other words, what I want users to touch or click as a call to action and what I want them to ignore needs to be clearly defined. For example, the distinction between information and navigation, or icons and buttons.

The use of simple 3D elements, or slightly raised areas on a page can help do those things well. A subtle drop shadow or gradated colour can hint at a light source from above. These basic references to the real world can be effective, without fighting with other 2D design elements more commonly considered ‘fit for screen’.

Yet in the current response to skeuomorphism, we may be inadvertently discarding these important visual distinctions.

It’s worth remembering that sliding your finger across a cold, lifeless glass surface is not natural anyway. It doesn’t represent the real world we’re in, yet our fingers, eyes and brains operate in the real world. We touch things, manipulate them, get feedback. Haptic technologies are being explored that will help give physical feedback to a person using a touch screen. There are also many people already worrying about our touch-screen future, and how it may not be all it’s cracked up to be. All these efforts acknowledge the need for tangible, real-world analogies and interactions in our digital lives.

Of course, as with most things, it’s all about balance. Whatever you design, it should always be appropriate to the medium you are designing for, but it can utilise a diverse range of elements to reach that goal. Digital designers the world over are trying to get it right, whether on the web, in apps, or even in technologies like Google Glass.

And in the digital projects we’ll be working on in the future here at BEAR, we’re hoping to find that balance too.


Originally written for BEAR