It seems as if almost every design blogger has written something on skeuomorphism in digital design over the past few years. If I’m honest, I’ve tried to avoid the topic on DailySlandered due to its journalistic saturation. I have however, after a few years, finally succumbed; believing that, despite the amount of comment on the subject, one broad, impartial overview was required.
So, first things first, what is skeuomorphism?
It’s a pretty fancy word for something that is actually quite simple. A skeuomorphism is an ornamental, functional or nomenclatural hangover from a previous product or interface. Consider the the faux leather and felt of iOS, the way digital calendars maintain the month-per-page model or the return key on a computer keyboard, named because it returned the cartridge to the left hand side on a typewriter.
And what’s the debate?
Skeuomorphism is not new nor is it, as a concept, questionable. Its benefits have influenced product design for decades. In truth the debate uses the term skeuomorphism as a masthead for a conversation focused on skeuomorphic realism in digital user interface design and tends to ignore the functional and nomenclatural aspects of my definition. Should web buttons look like physical rocker switches? Does it help the user if an address book actually looks like a hardback book.
With this in mind, proponents argue that realism helps users to be comfortable with a new technology. Showing a user something that feels familiar takes the technophobic shine off of their experience. Others counter that this approach fills valuable screen space and limits progression when compared to a purely digital, future thinking UI.
I also believe the debate was fuelled by Windows’ launch of their Metro interface, which opted for a clean, modern, flat UI. Suddenly the design conversation could be spun into the ever present, yet slightly dull, Apple vs. Windows narrative.
Where did it all start?
Most commentators tend to trace the trend for realism back to the first iPhone (2007). Without doubt it existing before but with iOS Apple embraced it with an unprecedented vigor. And to a certain extent, they had good reason to:
- By nature apps on smartphones run in fullscreen rather than in floating windows. This means two apps can have independent UI styling without compromising the coherence of of the OS.
- Apple openly shunned the stylus and promoted the finger as its only input device. This meant buttons had to be larger, opening the door to showing less on the screen, but doing more with it.
- Designers that were used to the web now had a fixed screen size to work with. Not having to worry about multiple browsers and window resizing set them free to create more luxurious interfaces. Not all smartphones had such luxury. Android’s OS for example has to adapt to a variety of displays and screen sizes, making designing graphically-rich apps much more challenging.
The New Opposition – Flat Design
The first Windows phone launched in October 2010, sporting a UI that was internally codenamed Metro. It had forsaken the shadows, highlights, gradients, and textures of iOS apps and opted for tiles of block colours with big typography. This new approach differentiated themselves and their product and ushered in what they believed to be a new, better design philosophy.
The interface struck a chord amongst designers and technologists alike. Forecasters asked you to visualise a not too distant future, let’s say around 2030. Moore’s law describes that from now until then technology will have progressed at twice the rate at which it had from the millenium until now. In this future vision is consumer technology swathed in stitched leather effects? This realisation led many designers to start questioning their approach.
While bloggers rallied around the new Windows phone, Apple developed the Retina display and for the first time screen resolutions were approaching the quality of printed paper. This coincided with the adoption of web-ready font formats by browsers, paving the way to using any font on the web. When you have near print quality resolution and your pick of fonts, you quickly realize you don’t need much else to create beautiful work.
As smartphones became more prevalent, web designers began creating responsive websites that automatically adjust their layout in order to optimize themselves for the screen size they’re being viewed on. This development meant assets needed to be somewhat flexible and thus designers began to favour light-weight, simpler, flat user interfaces.
An Unexpected Contender
When Larry Page took full control of Google as CEO in 2007, the company started redesigning almost all of its products and for the first time ever, they started doing it well. The visual design language that ensued was ported from its web apps to its android apps and then later across to Apple’s iOS. The new, consistent look and feel was described by many as “almost flat”; using shadows, gradients and textures with tasteful subtlety. This style offers the best of both world: realism’s affordances and subtle hints combined with the purity and simplicity off flat design.
The Way Forward
We’re not far off the 10 year anniversary of the smartphone and mobile web browsing is said to now outweigh that of the desktop. I think it’s fair to say that the majority are now accustomed to the smartphone technology and that using familiarity to ease people into it has done its job. I can now see Apple using the departure of former iOS head Scott Forstall as a catalyst for change. I don’t believe it’ll happen in the launch of a single update, it’s just not the way they work. But I do believe they’ll move away from the gaudy skeuomorphs towards a cleaner version Google’s almost flat design. After all, with their hardware being famed for its elegant minimalism it feels somewhat incongruous for their software to be otherwise. In an interview with the London Evening Standard Jony Ive said that Apple’s “goal is simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way.”.