The demise of skeuomorphism

On Daring Fireball John Gruber proposes that the current enthusiasm for “flat” interface design can be explained by the introduction of retina displays. Gruber argues that high resolution screens are a natural fit for clean, typographic interfaces, whereas crude low resolution screens need skeuomorphism’s visual “parlor tricks” to disguise their inferior pixel density:

The trend away from skeuomorphic special effects in UI design is the beginning of the retina-resolution design era. Our designs no longer need to accommodate for crude pixels. Glossy/glassy surfaces, heavy-handed transparency, glaring drop shadows, embossed text, textured material surfaces […] work on sub-retina displays because sub-retina displays are so crude. On retina displays, as with high quality print output, these techniques are revealed for what they truly are: an assortment of parlor tricks that fool our eyes into thinking we see something that looks good on a display that is technically incapable of rendering graphic design that truly looks good.

If Gruber’s hypothesis is correct, then how can we explain the fact that highly skeuomorphic interfaces only started to appear en masse around 2008, when the iOS app store launched? UI designers have had to accomodate low resolution displays for decades, yet for the most part the dominant design styles have been “flat” rather than heavily textured or skeuomorphic. Even in recent years that has been the case, at least in the field of web design. The web design gallery siteInspire, launched in 2008, has showcased thousands of interfaces that are (mostly) devoid of decorative embellishments, which is a testament to the enduring popularity of minimalist design.

Admittedly, iOS apps are a somewhat different story. Poke around the iOS inspiration gallery pttrns and you’ll encounter skeuomorphic UIs aplenty. This trend can be explained in part by the massive influence that Apple exerts over designers. Remember when the company started showcasing their products against a stark white background with glass-like reflections? For years web designers aped the “glass table” effect, and in the same vein Apple’s native iOS apps offer a skeuomorphic blueprint for third party app developers to follow. In fact, Apple actively encourage skeuomorphism in their iOS Human Interface Guidelines:

When virtual objects and actions in an app are metaphors for objects and actions in the real world, users quickly grasp how to use the app. The classic example of a software metaphor is the folder: People put things in folders in the real world, so they immediately understand the idea of putting files into folders on a computer. […] iOS provides great scope for metaphors because it supports rich graphical images and gestures. People physically interact with realistic onscreen objects, in many cases operating them as if they were real-world objects.

These guidelines show that Apple’s infatuation with skeuomorphism stems from a desire to make their software user-friendly, and is more than simply a response to the technical shortcomings of sub-retina LCD displays. Rather, as James Higgs describes in his post Apple’s aesthetic dichotomy, it reflects a “deeply held aesthetic position”, albeit one which is out of step with the times.

The purpose of Skeuomorphism is to make a digital interface look familiar to its users by mimicking a physical object. For instance Apple’s iCal application resembles a desktop calendar, complete with “rich Corinthian leather” and pages that can be “torn” off. When Apple debuted their skeuomorphic interfaces, they may have been hoping to appeal to digital newcomers making their first forays into the unfamiliar world of personal computing, by evoking the real world calendars, address books and to-do lists that users were leaving behind.

Today our transition from physical to digital devices is complete. When was the last time you planned your day on a wall calendar, performed arithmetic on a handheld calculator, or flipped through an actual photo album? For most of us it is second nature to perform these tasks using software, be it on a desktop computer, tablet, or smartphone. We no longer need the crutch that skeuomorphism offers, and can intuitively navigate user interfaces without the aid of paper textures, faux-leather stitching, and pseudo-3D rotary dials. In 2013 skeuomorphic interfaces seem like kitch nostalgia for artifacts of a pre-digital age.

That’s not to say that there is no place in interface design for skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism is a spectrum, and while we may not care to admit it, most UI designers use skeuomorphic effects to some degree in our work. Bevelled buttons, for example, provide a useful analogy for the physical buttons we encounter every day on our keyboards, car dashboards and television remote controls. And lets face it, a well done skeuomorphic interface can be a visual delight. But when it comes to computer operating systems such as OS X, I think it’s fair to say that conspicuous skeuomorphism is no longer a desirable design strategy, and certainly not a necessary one.

The fanfare with which Microsoft’s Metro design has been greeted underscores just how dated Apple’s obsession with skeuomorphism is, and with Jonathan Ive in charge of Human Interface at Apple it seems likely that we will see a greater emphasis on the simplicity that characterises the company’s industrial design. When that happens, any designers still clinging to skeuomorphism will soon to follow suit.

One thought on “The demise of skeuomorphism

  1. Yes, indeed. I like to reflect on these things. It’s a lot about design that brings out interaction that suits the user’s mental model of what is happening and how things work.

    That’s one of the places where simplicity is found, along with many more at the very core of HCI.

    Along with culture, consistency, style, etc., it becomes quite complex. Looking forward to Jony’s upcoming work, always interesting to see. :)

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