Skeuomorphism: It’s Holding Us Back

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Steve Jobs deserves a place in the design world’s hall of fame. His skeuomorphic design philosophy made computer processes and interfaces accessible to a generation of users. No one can deny his contribution to the discipline.

As a result, it’s almost painful to admit his long-held insistence on skeuomorphism is no longer necessary, and indeed holds back a new generation of designers who choose to focus on simpler, more efficient designs.

Skeuowhatsit?

Skeuomorphic design uses elements of a familiar object to make a new design more accessible to users. For instance, the folder-shaped icons used by Windows to store documents look like real-world file folders.

Skeuomorphism has existed for centuries. Clay pot handles designed to mimic the rivets in steel pots are a simple example of skeuomorphism. Laminate flooring designed to look like natural wood also falls into the realm of skeuomorphic design.

In both cases, the appearance of the item adds nothing to the object’s functionality — such designs are purely aesthetic.

Skeuomorphism and Apple

Jobs loved skeuomorphism, and the design philosophy certainly had its place when Apple’s primary consumer base was largely computer-illiterate. Skeuomorphic designs like the famous Mac trashcan allow users to quickly grasp complicated computer concepts.

Skeuomorphism became the driving force behind Apple’s design philosophy, eventually reaching absurd proportions. The iPad calendar app, for instance, mimicked a leather-bound desk calendar, even though few people use desktop calendars anymore because, well, they’ve got access to electronic ones. The faux leather was quickly dubbed Corinthian leather, after the leather trim of cars from the 1970s.

With Jobs’ death, a schism quickly developed in Apple, with one side sticking loyally to Job’s vision, and a rebellious opposing body advocating for simpler, “flat image” designs. With the introduction of iOS 7, it appears the rebels won; the pro-skeuomorphers all seem to have been fired or sent to design rehab.

Skeuomorphism and Obsolescence

As a design choice, skeuomorphism has very real limitations. For one thing, skeuomorphic design tends to become dated quickly. How many people, for instance, have ever seen a reel-to-reel tape player, which until recently was used as the skeuomorphic design for Apple’s mobile podcast app?

Once the object which inspires a skeuomorphic design becomes obsolete and unfamiliar, its skeuomorphic equivalent becomes meaningless. The audible camera shutter click heard when taking pictures with a cell phone is in just such danger. With a generation used to cell phone photography, the shutter click is no more meaningful than any other noise means of notifying the user a picture has been taken.

Limited Usability

Skeuomorphism can actually work against a user. Consider, for instance, many virtual music-mixing systems. Skeuomorphic design mimics the appearance of the application’s real-world equivalent, with dials, knobs and slider bars.

These features limit how effectively the user can fine-tune settings. Replacing the sliders and dials with data input boxes allows the user to enter specific numerical values, which provide much more accurate results than using a mouse to drag a virtual slider across a virtual surface.

Performance and Appearance

A skeuomorphic interface consumes more memory and processing time than simpler designs. In our music-mixing example, the CPU renders a complicated interface with unnecessary graphics, putting increased stress on the processor and consuming valuable processing power. Simpler designs cut away excess graphics for smoother performance.

Consistency is also an issue. In designs where each app mimics a real-world equivalent, any semblance of a consistent design theme disappears. When one app resembles a tape player, one a paper shredder and one a complex piece of sound editing equipment, the parts overwhelm the whole.

Simple and Succinct

Those who advocate continued skeuomorphism in digital interfaces forget computers are no longer intimidating, unfamiliar objects. Users no longer need to be taken by the hand and gently guided with familiar images, because the computer is itself familiar.

This realization opens up a bold new design philosophy, where interfaces can offer the most accurate and effective means of reaching the user’s goals. A user’s eBook files don’t need to display as “real” books on a virtual bookcase (another Apple design choice); the user no longer needs such overt visual cues. We all know how to find and open files.

Even so, let’s not be too quick to denigrate skeuomorphism. It’s possible to go too far in the other direction, as Windows 8 demonstrates with its overly sterile design. New flat-image designs still need to engage and interest the user.

Skeuomorphism fulfilled a valuable need, but like a child learning to ride a bike with training wheels, we’ve outgrown the need. It’s time to really start riding.

Author bio: Adrienne Erin is a designer, developer, and writer who loves the direction Apple is going with the new iOS 7. Liked this post? Follow Adrienne on Twitter to see more of her work or get in touch with her.

Catalin Zorzini
Catalin is the founder of Mostash - a social marketing boutique - and he's always happy to share his passion for graphic design & social media.
  • Great article, Adrienne. I appreciate you recognizing other forms of skeumorphism that occur as well outside of the digital world, like the steel rivets for example. I never thought of skeumorphism as an evil crutch, but that’s in fact what it is! Thanks for helping to open up my mind and opinion on the topic.

  • Nathanael

    “Skeuomorphism has existed for centuries.”

    Of course it has — and for very good reasons. Reasons we haven’t suddenly outgrown just because Steve Jobs is no longer with us.

    As harsh as the word may be, I think those who argue we no longer need skeuomorphism or, worse, that it’s a hindrance, are self-deluded. Sure, perhaps many of the metaphors we currently use are outdated (and who says someone actually has to have owned a pad of paper or pushed a real-world shutter button in order to understand the metaphor? We all still understand the idea of horses and buggies even though no one younger than our great-grandsires has actually ridden in one). But that only argues that we need to update our metaphors, not ditch metaphors altogether.

    In fact, unless we one day evolve into Binars, we will probably always at some level need metaphors to relate to our technology, just because computers are so utterly inhuman. Unless you want to argue that every onscreen icon be nothing but a variant on the shuffling of magnetically-recorded binary information and the rapid-fire toggling of nano-switches (which is all that really happens inside a computer, whether I’m editing a music file, typing up a thesis, or surfing the net), then you are forced to admit that we are, in fact, working at levels of abstraction far apart from the reality of computer technology. And since we have to abstract the workings of digital technology anyway, why wouldn’t we use concepts we already understand to represent those abstractions?

    Ultimately, just having a display with icons of any sort — be they the “skeuomorphs” of iOS 6, or the more enlightened, flattened icons of iOS 7 — is skeuomorphic. The very act of touching an OK button — from the capactive screen to the the defining of a touchable area, to the English label — is from start to finish skeuomorphic, utterly unrelated to what’s really going on, intended only to enable us humans to relate to, and interact with, our technology in ways familiar to us.

    “Those who advocate continued skeuomorphism in digital interfaces forget computers are no longer intimidating, unfamiliar objects. Users no longer need to be taken by the hand and gently guided with familiar images, because the computer is itself familiar.”

    This, it seems to me, is exactly what I pointed out above: this is not an argument against skeuomorphism at all. It is simply an argument that, because we are all more tech-savvy than we were a generation ago, we have a whole new bag of metaphors to draw from. We may no longer need the pad of paper metaphor but the reality is, whatever we ultimately replace it with will hardly be less metaphorical.

    “When one app resembles a tape player, one a paper shredder and one a complex piece of sound editing equipment, the parts overwhelm the whole.”

    And yet, calling this particular collection of digital data a “music file”, that one a Microsoft Word document, is already an abstraction.

    Nevertheless, since each app represents a different task, why must we expect them to all look and behave in exactly the same way? If I’m playing an MP3, I expect see see Play, Pause and Volume buttons, but would be utterly confused by an Edit button. The converse would be true when using MS Office. Most of us don’t get overwhelmed in the real-world by having microwaves for cooking, cars for driving, and pencils for writing, all operating in completely dissimiliar fashion from each other. And it strikes me as rather odd to suddenly hear arguments that skeuomorphism is so confusing when it’s done so much to demystify technology in the past thirty years.

    Sure, it will always be possble to improve on previous implementations of skeuomorphism — and no we don’t necessarily need Corinthian leather — but skeuomorphism itself isn’t going anywhere.

    • Razchak

      What a fantastic analysis. It’s a shame this reply was lost without reply or comment of its own. I’m agreed 100%.

  • Anna

    Skeuomorphism not about computer illiteracy. It’s about not getting dizzy with a screen that moves around like jelly. It’s about not being all about design just to show off your new skills but being functional and making the interface intuitive. Intuitiveness is not about litaracy but about not making your brain hurt.It’s about using neutral colours so that people do not get distracted. This is what Apple’s design was always about and why people preferred it to garish Windows design. Wonder why most large companies who use windows are still on XP? Because you can actually work on it instead of getting distracted flashy moving pictures. At least most windows versions give you the option to simplify the interfcace. This is why IOS7 is a total failure in all of this and even lacks the option of customisation.

    I almost think that this anti-skeuomorphism campaign is a Windows conspiracy. Bound to do Apple (and its users!) a lot of harm.

  • Pedja

    Like any other design direction or to call it era, this will return in few years. Today, flat is major direction, because every browser supports CSS3 and it is possible to achieve it with few simple rules. I don’t think we need more talk “was Jobs decision right” or not. If Jobs didn’t died, designers probably would go in skeuomorphism direction, with same passion, and talking how that is the best thing in the world. Stop writing this useless type of texts, without real value, author should ask him self what readers learned useful from this post, there is more value in comments.

  • Steve G

    Absolutely wrong

  • Mathew

    You’re late for at least one year! Sorry but this is boring.