Skeuomorphism is Dead, Long Live Skeuomorphism

Fjord Family

…if the tectonic plates have settled, who will own the new geography of design?

Steve Jobs was perhaps the leading fan of skeuomorphism, the ubiquitous graphic style that brings real-world metaphors and textures into digital interfaces to help us better understand what we’re doing. Fake leather, wood, paper and glass became commonplace in Apple applications, as representations of design elements that were functionally necessary in the original product.

Yet now we live in a world where digital isn’t an option, it’s a way of life and while the physical objects skeumorphism harps back to haven’t changed, our understanding of digital is much more advanced. Which begs the question – what role is there for skeuomorphism in a world where most people are using a host of digital interfaces throughout the day, and where younger people have never even experienced physical rolodexes or giant leather-bound desk calendars? The emerging consensus is that when used excessively skeuomorphism is at best out-dated, at worst just plain confusing and ugly.

Of course this has serious implications for designers. How do we retain the friendliness of skeumorphism while moving into a more modern, digital and connected space?

Clients and users need to know how our interfaces can retain the focus on simplicity, accessibility and ease-of-use of skeuomorphism, while at the same time refreshing their UI style and introducing design consistency across software and services.

So where are we to focus efforts as designers if people don’t need the same kind of guidance skeumorphism offered? We need to look even further than simply answering skeumorphism with minimalism. We need to ask questions that go to the heart of interface design and how it affects daily life.

Seen through this lens the issue becomes much more complex: it’s less about guiding us on our digital journey as it is around selecting the interface through which we experience the world around us. Experience is a very personal and human thing, which brings a plethora of questions around the ethics and responsibility of design.

One response has been Microsoft’s new Windows UI style, across operating systems. It’s the polar opposite of skeuomorphism – a flattened graphic look in which all excessive embellishments are removed. The life in the experience is supposed to come from content and transitions, not from visual UI ornamentation.

With iOS, Apple showed the world how the graphical touch paradigm should work. Modern touch interfaces are now characterized by responsive, fluid and direct interaction, while tapping, swiping and pinching have become dominant gestures. Looking ahead, interactions will move beyond the screen into thin air, and both input and output will increasingly put voice at the centre. Skeuomorphism won’t work then – but neither will the tiles and typography of the Microsoft Metro approach.

The question that emerges is whether the digital world needs a new common language. Is it right that we have to learn a new language of interaction if we switch devices? If so, will this arise as habits formed in purely digital products be translated into the real world – like a kind of ‘skeuomorphism in reverse’?

Microsoft’s Richard Peers speaking at the recent Guardian Mobile Business Summit, spoke of their ambition for Windows 8 to be the consolidating platform, with uniform experiences across all device types.

Seen in this light, we believe the future of skeuomorphic design will be less about aesthetics but more about how people use a product or service. Is there a set of universal design principles for the language of interaction, as there now seems to be for touchscreen interaction?

Our perceptions of the world are, by in large, guided by the interfaces we use. Remember the “I’m a Mac: I’m a PC” adverts, imagine a world where we are defined by whether we’re Apple or Android users and the interactions and gestures we’ve learnt to operate with those interfaces.

It’s clear from the patent disputes amongst Apple and Samsung that it’s the technology companies that are making powerful attempts to own this new space. Is it even possible to own a universal design language? Now with Apple’s recent patenting of the page turn, will the user ever be empowered to decide which interaction works best for them?

It’s clear the implications are massive. UX specialists now have an opportunity to lead the way and design the dominant interaction paradigms for what comes next, taking the best of skeuomorphic user-friendliness with a real understanding of digital change.


Image courtesy of  thenakedsnail

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