The Song Remains the Same: A Few Words Against Anti-skeuomorphism

Yes it’s a double negative – because this is not an argument in favor of skeuomorphism. It is an attempt to clarify the argument about skeuomorphism and flat design and put it in proper context.

First of all, we need to acknowledge that the true definition of skeuomorphism is different than the definition used by the design world. This in itself is a testament to Apple’s massive reach and influence on the design world. A few associations made connecting Apple and skeuomorphism, and suddenly its popular meaning is altered. Chris Barunik has a good piece on that higher level issue, as does Sacha Greif.

In the common conversation there are generally two different techniques thrown together under the umbrella of skeuomorphism. One is the intentional representation of a physical object or device, used to provide an affordance into the purpose of the experience. The most extreme examples of this type of “skeuomorphism” are lambasted by designers, usually with good reason.

For example – no user needs to get slapped in the face with a digital representation of a reel-to-reel tape player so that they can understand and efficiently interact with podcast audio. That’s an example of gratuitous ornamentation and it gets in the way of the experience. This is nothing more than metaphor run amok.

The subtler technique that is often lumped in with skeuomorphism is the use of dimensionality and texture to create interface elements. This use of the term is even farther afield from the historical definition of skeuomorphism, and should be called out separately. This technique also provides a handle for the user. But it primarily acts on the unconscious, emotional level instead of the level of conscious thought. If crafted with care, it can help communicate an immediate understanding of how to use the interface.

The notion that dimensionality and texture are transitional design tools for the pre-Retina age is absurd. It shows a lack of understanding of why and how these techniques are used. For a designer to cast aside any technique that falls out of favor is like a carpenter who discovers a chisel and throws out their sandpaper. The interface is an illusion. The goal is to make the illusion feel natural – to maintain the suspense of disbelief.

The Interface is an Illusion

In the world of art, we can make a statement by sculpting a piece using only chisels because the goal is self-expression. In the world of design, both our chisels and our sandpaper are used in service of communication. Why wouldn’t we keep both tools in the toolbox? Human capacities of perception and cognition have not changed significantly in the last 50,000 years. The idea that these faculties have suddenly evolved now that we have better screens is laughable. We still respond to the same things for the same reasons as we did many millennia ago.

Debate about the superiority or inferiority of ‘flat’ or ‘skeuomorphic’ design mostly boils down to style. Yesterday’s style versus today’s style. Bell bottoms versus skinny jeans. The styles come and go. The human desire to mark our moment in time and identify with a tribe is strong. But as designers, we can’t afford to serve the fickle gods of fashion. Apple grew to become nearly synonymous with the power of great design largely because Steve Jobs and those that followed his lead were constantly in pursuit of a deeper and more universal truth.

Great designers are always more interested in solving human problems than putting a personal stamp on something. And the best interaction design guides attention so elegantly that users don’t even know the interface is there. The appearance, motion, and flow are so seamlessly unified with the function that even the most delightful, innovative interaction feels completely natural. Like Steve Jobs, we should all pursue a timeless, universal, and sustainable standard. I believe that standard (whether acknowledged or not) comes from the understanding of human behavior and perception. It has little to do with fashion, and everything to do with how the brain works. To paraphrase Richard Saul Wurman, we must serve the god of understanding. Just don’t expect our users to thank us – most likely, they won’t even know we were there.




  • andrew wrote:

    slthough i actually enjoyed the tape reel in the podcasts app – and yes, i know it is simply ornamentation (but enjoyable ornamentation, girls especially fall in love with it), i agree completely with the rest of this piece

  • Thanks Andrew, appreciate your comments.

  • I totally agree. Steve Jobs had a sense that something should be beautifully designed, not just trendy. It’s why Apple’s iOS currently looks nothing like any other mobile operating system.

    I watched the original iPhone keynote recently and one thing that Jobs said stuck out. He said that they had spent years working on the problem of how to design a user interface (both in layout and chrome) and I they must have nailed it, given the immense popularity and smartphone revolution that the iPhone brought about.

    I has been less than a year since Scott Forstall exited the company. iOS 7 feels like they spent far too much time on simply following a currently rising trend (Flat Design) and not enough determining if it’s actually the right way to go.

    Yes, I agree that iOS 6 is probably the point at which they needed to start dialling down the most skeuomorphic elements, and perhaps putting a mild coat of paint on the existing UI, but current iOS uses affordances precisely for the user experience, and the fact that it also looks rather nice as well is a bonus.

    I think Adrian Maciburko did a fantastic concept on just where the chrome in iOS needed to go. Not flat (and under Ive’s guidance, rather harsh on the eyes), but just less depth.

  • Good thoughts Nick, thanks.

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