I recently came across a perplexing word: skeuomorphism. I suppose the biggest surprise to me was that it wasn’t already a part of my vocabulary, since it actually describes a very common phenomenon in every area of design. Wikipedia defines it as such:
“A skeuomorph, or skeuomorphism, is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.”
First defined by archaeologists in 1889, Skeuomorphism has been around for quite some time. In fact, most of us interact with skeuomorphs in the physical world on a daily basis. Examples include: the tiny, non-functioning handles on maple syrup jugs; non-functioning scoops on automobiles (as seen on the 2nd generation Mini-Cooper); and decorative window shutters. Even sounds can be skeuomorphic, such as the shutter noise on digital cameras, which references older, analog camera technology.
In the digital arena, skeuomorphic interfaces emulate recognizable, real-world objects. For us at Sequence, the current debate over how/when skeuomorphism should be utilized in Interface Design is particularly interesting.
The leader of the pack in skeuomorphic design is Apple, who has historically incorporated the visual technique in their digital products. Often, it has been successfully leveraged to help familiarize users with new interfaces. However, skeuomorphic flourishes have been turned up a notch in the most recent OS release, Mountain Lion, drawing mixed reactions. One prime example is that Apple has moved its ubiquitous iCal design away from the sleek gray chrome of past versions to a faux-tan leather motif accented with stitching (the calendar even incorporates torn paper edges). In a Gizmodo post, Jesus Diaz sums up how many designers feel about the design: “this emulation of old stuff feels like a juvenile gimmick.” But beyond being visually off-putting to some, it also raises questions of relevance. Is the visual reference to physical calendars of yesteryear necessary, or is it ornamentation for ornamentation’s sake? Is holding on to the past stunting interface design innovation?
In contrast, Microsoft is the current wavemaker in non-skeuomorphic design. Microsoft describes their recent “Metro” design style/philosophy (seen on the Windows Phone, Zune, and Windows 8) as “…modern and clean. It’s fast and in motion. It’s about content and typography. And it’s entirely authentic.” The Swiss-inspired look cuts down on the fluff and fussy metaphors, making content king. The large buttons and dominant type are designed to translate easily over a myriad of devices, from desktops to touch screens. The look is forward thinking, but it’s not without criticism. Some feel the minimal look lacks relatable atmosphere/emotion. Also, by stripping the design of cues that help users understand how to interact with an unfamiliar element, Microsoft might actually be making interfaces less intuitive and user-friendly.
Below are some more examples of skeuomorphic and non-skeuomorphic interfaces, displaying a range of implementations:
So, is skeuomorphism a helpful design tool to promote user-engagement or an unnecessary crutch for visual and UX designers? Does the approach of referencing real world objects enhance design and the experience or is it a distraction and disconnect to digital experiences that are creating new paradigms? There are many arguments on both sides of the ongoing debate. What do you think?
Jason is a Designer at Sequence; he creates visual solutions that enhance brand experiences.