Eric Karjaluoto

These Aren’t the Skeuomorphs You’re Looking For

The design world, and perhaps beyond, is alive with a largely misunderstood discussion about depth. This debate hit a feverish pace when Apple revealed the design of iOS 7. The revised UX looks so similar to Microsoft’s Modern UI that there’s no longer any question as to whether all of these camps learn from one another. (But this is another matter altogether.)

Skeuomorphs: This funny little word describes a simple concept. A skeuomorph is a treatment used to resemble another thing—typically one that is familiar to the user. Implemented poorly, a skeuomorph is an unnecessary affectation, adding little to the user experience. For example, the torn paper texture in your OS X Calendar app is visual kitsch that does little to improve the user experience. However, a good skeuomorph helps users better understand and interact with a designed item. For example, my digital camera plays a shutter release sound to indicate that a photograph has been taken. This is a familiar cue that provides useful information and makes my experience better.

The current discussion about skeuomorphs isn’t actually about skeuomorphs, though; it’s about depth. iOS, in its previous incarnations, has used depth commonly. This sense of space comes with benefits: Icons on the home screen stand apart from the background image. Menu bars in apps are distinct from content. Varying planes (like the one revealed upon double-clicking the iPhone’s Home button) provide a distinct space for different functions. You get my point. Depth can help users understand what a digital item is supposed to do.

Even though there’s a lot of hubbub surrounding the semantics of depth, there’s little wrong with using it. Rather, the problem is with some of Apple’s kitschier visual metaphors. The jellybean buttons of the original OS X showed off what the operating system could do, but failed to do so tastefully. Similarly, the “bookshelf” in iBooks is certainly a little gauche. Let’s not blame Apple for this, though. It’s easy to point fingers at outdated visual approaches; doing so belies how such steps can move design forward.

What’s unfortunate about the visual approach in iOS 7 isn’t that it’s bad—Apple rarely produces bad design—it’s in how the company has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. They could scale back some of the overwrought treatments, or simplify items in a fashion that remains intact with the brand language they have established. Instead, they’re abandoning motifs that are very much theirs, in favor of a popular look. And make no mistake; the way flat design is currently being used is just a passing trend.

For the next few years, designers will uniformly apply flat treatments to their work—just as blindly as they used to apply reflections, drop shadows, and wood textures. On-screen items will be painfully flat, regardless of whether this treatment is appropriate or not. This look will get tired—as all looks do—and people will start to realize that flat design has shortcomings too. Stripping away a layer of visual information leaves users with less to guide them. For example: which items on the screen are in some way actionable. Admittedly, most screen items now can be interacted with; this doesn’t change the usefulness of visual cues to indicate how these elements might be used.

Flat design can be good. Depth can be good. Meanwhile, skeuomorphs—when applied well—can also be helpful. The only question is whether the approach is appropriate. Some new design conventions are unfamiliar to users and skeuomorphs help bridge this gap. They may serve as stopgap measures and look outdated in the future, but if they help facilitate easier interaction they represent sensible design approaches. My point here is that it’s silly to treat any design approach as superior to others. Good designers would do themselves a favor by avoiding such nonsense and simply making appropriate choices.

I feel like I’ve written the above text already. In a way, I have, by addressing similar topics in my new book: The Design Method. If you are interested in the nature of design, and ways to make it effectively, you should preorder a copy. I’ve jammed as much information as I can into this book, and I think it’s well worth the $18.41 it’s currently listed for.

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