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Skeuomorphism and Flat Design: What does it mean?


If you have been around designers or the design community in the past year or so you have probably heard the terms "skeuomorphism" and "flat design" brought up on more than one occasion.  Some designers will argue that this skeuomorphism they talk about is completely necessary to help users adapt to using an interface while other designers will argue that the behavior of screen-based applications is already intuitive to the vast majority of users.  But what do any of these Klingon terms mean to a non-designer?

Skeuomorphism is, in a nutshell, the practice of modeling screen-based interface functions off of their analog counterparts.  For example, the volume control for a music app might be shaped like the dial on an old radio.  When you take a picture with a camera-phone you still hear the snap of a shutter.  An E-book reader might feature a central page fold or a paper-like texture.  Skeuomorphic elements are incorporated into interface designs with the intent of helping a user immediately and instinctively understand their functionality.  If a feature looks and behaves like something they have seen and used elsewhere in their lives, they will be more apt to immediately grasp not only its purpose but also its usage.

Skeuomorphism is not always as obvious as the examples listed above.  Some of the most common features on websites include elements of skeuomorphism.  The tendency of designers to make links look like three-dimensional buttons, for example, is a more subtle form of skeuomorphic practices.  Drop shadows and gradients all serve to make elements on a flat screen look three dimensional and lend a tactile feel to an interface.  Steve Jobs, who understood the importance of usability to his products' success, was one of Skeuomorphism's greatest champions; many would argue that he introduced the phrase to common vernacular.

In 2012, Microsoft launched their Windows 8 platform, which was revolutionary not only in its layout but in the fact that it was relatively devoid of textural elements.  Where Apple has famously employed colors and gradients to lend it's OS and iOS interfaces a tactile, jewel-like quality, Microsoft's buttons and tiles were completely flat.  Aside from certain universal symbols (such as arrows and tools) Microsoft chose not to incorporate real-world elements into the Windows 8 interface.  To many, the look of Windows 8 meant little more than a new brand direction for Microsoft but for designers and usability experts, this new design direction was extraordinary.

Every day, millions of people log into Windows 8—indeed, all new-generation Microsoft products—and have no problem navigating to the pages and features they wish to use.  For a usability expert like myself, this represents a truly remarkable shift in the way that humans interact with computers.  Think about it: ten years ago, most people could not be expected to turn on a brand new computer (or an OS they had never worked with) and instinctively know what features to engage to complete a task without skeuomorphic "hints."

From a sociological standpoint, the success of flat design is a sign that human culture is evolving around the presence and omniscience of screen-based interfaces.  They are a part of everyone's daily lives now.  People realize, on a gut-level, that the capabilities of smart devices far exceed that of their analog counterparts to the extent that they must be treated as a different set of functions all together. 

It would be ridiculous—not to mention presumptuous—to claim that this attitude shift heralds the death of skeuomorphic design.  Indeed skeuomorphism is still widely used to add depth and visual interest to more complex designs.  Flat design has proved incredibly effective when functions are designed around it's usage; that is to say, Microsoft laid out the features of Windows 8 in a way that allowed them to optimize the effectiveness of flat design and make a statement to others in the design world.  On most websites, however, skeuomorphic elements are necessary for maximum usability: without link buttons many people overlook important calls to action, and phrases like "Add To Cart," lifted from the retail world, have become ubiquitous in the realm of ecommerce.   We need to think of skeuomorphism on an experiential scale rather than as a visual design methodology.

Both Google and Apple have adapted choice parts of flat design for their own purposes while not completely abandoning the tenets of skeuomorphism.  The use of subtle overlay shadows in recent Android OS' and the frosted-glass effect of iOS 7 signify that skeuomorphism is evolving, but not going away.

Where, then, can we expect UI design to go in the coming years?  What is it safe to expect from such a rapidly-changing industry?  I think we can assume that trends will continue to come and go, but might have less profound impacts on the design world than they do today as UI designers come to realize the extraordinary amount of options at their fingertips.   Although the flat design movement failed to kill skeuomorphism, it did kill the myth of the overarching design norm.  Moving forward many designers will opt to include the rich textures innate to skeuomorphic practices in their work, while others will employ a flat approach, and still others combine both to create a skeuominimal effect.  The most important takeaway is that both methodologies have their merits and neither can be forced to fit every designed project.  Like any other industry, trends will continue to captivate—however briefly— the UI world. 


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