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.
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.
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.