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Skeuomorphism in Design

I was fortunate enough to be invited to take part in a panel discussion about skeuomorphism and flat design at up.front in Berlin. It was the first time I spoke in public about design, about anything really and frankly, I was brickin’ it, but now I can’t wait to do it again!

There’s a time and a place for everything

First of all, I want to make it clear what side I’m on: neither ― there are no sides in my opinion. I’ll explain.

My Dad used to always say to me: “Timothy, there’s a time and place for everything.” There’s a time to use skeuomorphism and a time not to, it all depends on your goal and the experience you’re trying to achieve as the designer. I’m not sure when this dicussion started to be about pixels and visuals, I feel it has very little to do with that.

Every product has a target audience and a certail user experience they’re trying to achieve and it’s up to us to use all the tools we have to our disposal. Skeuomorphism is great for reducing the learning curve when introducing a new unknown product.

When Apple first released the iPad in 2010 their Human Interface Guidelines stated:

“The more true to life your application looks and behaves, the easier it is for people to understand how it works and the more they enjoy using it.”

Humans are often afraid of change and try to avoid things that are unfamiliar to us because we don’t understand them. So of course it made sense that Apple would strongly promote the use of depictions of physical objects in apps to help us understand and relate to the product.

Also the iPad is a computer that doesn’t feel like a computer (in the traditional sense). Fusing a skeuomorphic interface with a multi-touch device like the iPad has an huge psychological and emotional effect on it’s users. We feel a lot more comfortable when we can relate to what we’re interacting with, there’s less fear of the unknown.

But 2 years later Apple altered this section of HIG, replacing it with a section on “Aesthetic Integrity”, this time saying:

“For example, an app that enables a productive task generally keeps decorative elements subtle and in the background, while giving prominence to the task by providing standard controls and behaviors. Such an app gives users a clear, unified message about its purpose and its identity. If, on the other hand, the app enables the productive task within a UI that seems whimsical or frivolous, people might not know how to interpret these contradictory signals.”

Why change it? As time went on, we got used to iPad, became familiar with it so again, Apple made a smart move by veering away from strongly promoting the use of depictions of physical objects in apps to an approach that promotes using decorative elements to support whatever purpose the app has.

In a digital world, it’s all about the experience. So, we can spend all our time discussing pixels and looks. Or, we can start designing unique experiences. The visual design has to enhance the experience where possible. It’s much more than just aesthetics. So I believe its not one or the other,

Go Out & Talk

Like I said at the start, I was pretty scared when I got asked to talk, I wasn’t sure what to expect and it’s not my strongest skill but I really enjoyed it, I learnt so much and cant wait to do it again.

Believe it or not it was a pretty big adrenaline rush and I just want to thank Benedikt Lehnert for his help when I was preparing and the guys at up.front for the opportunity. You should go out and talk!