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“Skeuomorphic” design –  software that resembles the physical objects it replaces – went from being the hot design principle to an insult in an amazingly short period of time. If you weren’t reading tech news in the late 2000s and early 2010s, you might have completely missed that this even happened.

It’s a tale of trial, failure, success, and folly. Let’s start at the beginning.

What is Skeuomorphism?

The word skeuomorph (skyoo-uh-morf) comes from the Greek skeuos, for tool, and morph, for shape. A skeuomorph is a tool or object that incorporates design elements from previous iterations that are no longer needed or used. In the context of technology, skeuomorphism is the design of software to look like the physical product that it’s replacing. Here’s an infamous early example: IBM’s RealPhone, a piece of software for making phone calls on a computer.

ibm-realphone

As you can see, the software is made to look like the item being replaced: a desk phone. The handset, volume slider, number display, and speed dial buttons are immediately familiar. The alternating blue-and-grey background on the speed dial cells looks familiar, and there’s even a drawer that slides out and holds your phone numbers.

More modern examples can be seen in many of the apps that you’re probably familiar with, like Apple’s calendar app from iOS 5.

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ios-5-cal

It looks like a desk calendar, complete with the edge of a ripped-off page visible near the top.

Even websites featured skeuomorphic design, like this example from skeu.it, a great blog on skeuomorphic folly:

skeuomorphic-tape

Skeu.it’s caption: “Can someone please recommend some web 2.0 Scotch tape that actually holds this goddamned content on the screen?”

You get the idea. Skeuomorphism was really common in the late 2000s and early 2010s, and these sorts of designs were all over – before disappearing almost overnight.

Why Skeuomorphism?

So why did skeuomorphism become so popular in the first place? Tony Thomas, writing at Medialoot, states that incorporating real-world design makes “interfaces feel instantly familiar.” And App Design Vault points out that “Familiarity means encouraging more use, quicker adoption for new users by reducing the intimidation barriers.”

In many cases, this can actually make an app easier to use. Look at Paper, the popular sketching notebook app for the iPad. When you tap the paintbrush tool, you know how it’s going to be different from the pencil tool. There’s no need for an explanation in the toolbar or a video introducing you to the different implements; you just know.

skeuomorph-paper-53

And, of course, there’s the nostalgia factor: whether they miss the days of writing with paper and pen 3 Paper Notebooks Worth Shelling Out For 3 Paper Notebooks Worth Shelling Out For We do a lot of writing about high-tech ways to keep track of things and manage your life. But sometimes a plain old notebook is the best thing you can use. Read More , or they just like the look of a legal pad, skeuomorphic design appeals to a lot of people. It’s also kind of nice seeing all of your e-books displayed on a bookshelf 6 Quick iBooks Tips For Better Reading Experience On iPhone 6 Quick iBooks Tips For Better Reading Experience On iPhone Read More if you lament the fact that you don’t have shelves full of novels. And how gratifying was it to see a page turn on the iPad?

Joel Mathis of Macworld, in his fond farewell to skeuomorphism in iOS, presented another point of view, especially when it came to the Notes app.

Why? Because Notes was more than utilitarian. It wasn’t the faux yellow tablet paper that impressed me, rather, it was what happened in the app when I rotated the iPad into landscape mode: it became apparent that somewhere in the universe, that pad of office paper — virtual as it is — was being carried around in a nice folio, perhaps one made of rich Corinthian leather, with fine stitching all around the edges.

And I had the same thought I might have had about a real folio made of real leather with real stitching: Somebody cared enough about this to try to make it nice.

Whether or not you share these feelings about the simulated feeling of quality and the amount of care behind it, there’s no denying that skeuomorphism plays with our feelings for real objects, seeking to engage our love for the things we remember from before the digital age.

That sounds good, right? Who doesn’t want their apps to feel familiar before users even start using them? And what app developer isn’t looking for increased use and quicker adoption? And if people like it, what’s there to lose? Seems like a win-win all around.

That’s certainly what Apple was thinking when they designed iOS 3, in the early days of commonplace digital skeuomorphism. Leather, stitching, a reel-to-reel tape player in the Podcasts app, photo albums in iPhoto, and nearly every other skeuomorphic cliché they could come up with would be seen over the next few versions of iOS and even OS X.

The Problem

Skeuomorphism itself isn’t a problem. In fact, as discussed above, there are some things about it that make it really great. But it can be overdone, and that’s where the problem lies. Check out the iPad’s Contacts app from iOS 3: leather, a bookmark, and page markers for each letter of the alphabet. What’s the point of all this?

ios-3-contacts

Eventually, people realized that there wasn’t really much of a point at all. It’s a contacts app. People don’t need to feel familiarity—it’s obvious how to use it. Some people were even confused by the fact that you couldn’t swipe to the turn the page like you could in iBooks.

Head earlier into computing history and you can see obvious bad ideas, like Microsoft’s Bob operating system 3 Stupid Computer Inventions That Never Took Off 3 Stupid Computer Inventions That Never Took Off A stroke of genius can lead to ideas that may or may not work out when they hit consumers. iPods, Twitter, RSS, and so on, are some ideas that have flourished favorably in today’s world.... Read More . Instead of giving users anything resembling a modern computer desktop, they were presented with a simulated home, complete with multiple rooms, fireplace, flowers, hanging calendar, and even a wood-fired stove. Oh, and a dog named Rover to guide you around the whole awful mess.

microsoft-bob

That’s an extreme example. But even Evernote, often renowned for good user interfaces, got on the skeuomorph bandwagon with simulated notebooks (they even had shadows):

Evernote-Notebooks

What’s wrong with this picture? To be honest, not a lot. Some of the people reading this article probably really like it, even. But there’s a whole lot of wasted space — and visual energy Clearing Out Clutter Is Good For You — But Why? Clearing Out Clutter Is Good For You — But Why? Decluttering is a great way to start the year feeling fresh, and it gives you a big sense of accomplishment — but there's more to it than that. This simple habit can improve your life. Read More  — in this scene.

And as Sacha Greif points out in his essay Flat Pixels: The Battle Between Flat Design & Skeuomorphism, the relationship between the digital and physical incarnations often went beyond looks: they’d also affect function.

For example, calendars have traditionally featured one month per page, because they’re limited by the physical concept of the page.

But although the digital medium has no such limitation, many digital calendars still adhere to the one-month-per-screen rule out of tradition instead of (for example) centering the view on the current week.

The Move to Minimalism

After some attempts at making everything skeuomorphic, the trend faded quickly. The 2012 release of Windows 8 and its “Metro” theming the previous year showed the world what the future of computing looked like. Apple’s iOS 5 and 6 were liked when they first came out, but everyone was excited when iOS 7 came out in 2013 and did away with the faux-office design.

Windows8

This look is echoed in Android’s recent change to material design Exploring Android L: What Exactly Is Material Design? Exploring Android L: What Exactly Is Material Design? You may have heard about Android L and Material Design, but what exactly is this new design philosophy and how will it affect Android and other Google products? Read More . And today, we’re used to mostly white screens with easy-to-read fonts with little to distract us from what we’re doing. Just look at Apple’s Calendar app now. Loads of white space, and not a torn page to be found.

os-x-cal

Why this move toward minimalist interfaces Minimalist For Everything – The Single Reason To Consider A Simpler Gmail & Google Reader [Chrome] Minimalist For Everything – The Single Reason To Consider A Simpler Gmail & Google Reader [Chrome] It is ironic that a web service which dominates the world with an austere, barebones interface has a few allied services which are cluttered. In my opinion, Gmail and Google Reader are not very cluttered.... Read More ? What changed? There wasn’t a precipitating event, but it likely comes down to the fact that the transition phase from the physical office, school, and recording room is over. Digital now reigns. Skeuomorphism was meant to add an element of realism and familiarity to relatively new technologies, but how many kids today didn’t grow up with an iPad at home or at school? To many, the contacts app is more familiar than an actual address book.

The transition is most definitely over, as is the need for skeuomorphism (although Carnegie Mellon is doing some cool research with functional skeuomorphism).

And with the increase in digital devices everywhere, we’ve come to appreciate anything that doesn’t require visual energy or contribute to digital clutter. It feels good to be in a sleek, clean environment, and simulated wood panelling doesn’t do anything to add to that feeling.

Though you can still choose a wood background for Wunderlist, if you want.

wunderlist-wood

What do you think about skeuomorphic design? Do you miss the days of shiny buttons and stitched leather? Or are you enjoying the current minimalist phase? Share your thoughts below!

  1. Mark Davies
    March 30, 2015 at 5:56 am

    I quite like skeuomorphism

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 2:15 pm

      It's good to know that there are people on both sides of the spectrum . . . skeuomorphism has taken a lot of flak in the recent past, but some people still like it. Hopefully we'll either find a balance or a good way to customize UIs in the near future!

  2. Doc
    March 29, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    Funny, Office 2013 still has a floppy disc icon for "Save." It's still a laugh to hear someone say "Click the floppy disc? I don't want to save it to a floppy, I want to save it to my desktop!" and have to be told they can save a file anywhere.

    Jony Ive went too far in stripping out *all* skeumorphism from iOS, and flattening out every OS (Windows 8, Mac OS X, iOS, Android) is just a waste of design time, time that can be used to make the OS we use every day better, not flatter.

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:53 am

      The floppy disk as an icon for saving is really funny—especially with how many people out there have never seen one. Though I don't really know what you could replace it with . . . so if you're going with icons, it seems like a decently good choice. Certainly better than an image of a solid-state drive. :-)

    • Doc
      March 30, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      Perhaps a checkmark or down-arrow pointing at a PC screen, or an HDD, or a CD, or a USB thumbdrive. Don't know how you'd deal with that.
      It's difficult to replace something that's become associated so deeply with something. Insisting on changing something that's become an ingrained part of the experience will cause a *lot* of pushback (Windows 8, GNOME 3 and Unity know this extremely well, and they still haven't quite learned their lesson, although Windows 10's Start Menu and GNOME Classic Mode are definitely signs of someone learning SOMETHING from the flak.)

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 2:14 pm

      I think a CD would just look like a circle, though a monitor might work. A USB stick might also work. Interesting to think about! And yes, it can definitely be difficult to move away from something that people have gotten used to; Windows 10's start menu is a great example. Though some companies have been a bit more forceful in their pushes for their customers to move away from what they're used to (Apple springs to mind).

    • Doc
      March 31, 2015 at 10:17 pm

      @Dann: A CD would be a silver circle with greenish reflections on it, but it wouldn't represent writable media very well - few CDs and DVDs are rewritable. Perhaps a silver HDD would work?

    • Stephan Huebner
      April 1, 2015 at 6:18 am

      Maybe a cloud would be a proper "save"-symbol, since Cloud-computing is all the rage these days and so many people seem to save their data in the cloud. :-)

    • Dann Albright
      April 1, 2015 at 7:17 am

      A hard drive might work, though I don't know how many people would recognize it. Power users, sure, but I know a number of people who have no idea what a hard drive looks like. A circle with a greenish tint / reflection would work for a CD, but not every app includes color, either. And you're right about it not being a great representation of writeable media—although I certainly burned a lot of CDs, that may have to do with when I started getting more into computing.

      A cloud isn't a bad idea, but could be confusing if you're not saving your data in the cloud. Looks like we'll have to keep ideating for a while!

  3. DonGateley
    March 27, 2015 at 7:54 pm

    I think that minimalism replaced skeuomorphism because of propaganda from the likes of Apple, Google and Microsoft. The real reason for it is that these platform providers wanted to lower the bar for design so that design wasn't needed any more. Eliminating design from the app developers burden lowers his cost and his required skill level which in the long run benefits the platform developers.

    Jony Ive pretty much sold this bill of goods and he will most likely be remembered as the designer who killed the field of design within computer applications. Minimalism is so utterly boring that I think the tide will turn eventually and that design will be re-introduced to apps because it looks good and people will respond to that after the propaganda wears off and all people know about is flat, boring, pastel, featureless minimalism. Skeuomorphism will become novel again and will be a point of positive differentiation.

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:52 am

      That's an interesting theory; I don't know much about development or design, so I can't say if using flat UIs instead of skeuomorphic ones saves time and money. One app developer I worked with spent quite a long time working on their app, and it's quite flat—the UX still takes a long time, no matter what look you're going for.

      And while minimalism can be boring, I don't think it has to be; if it's well done, it can be pleasing, and removing clutter is always (in my opinion) a good thing. Reducing visual and cognitive load is good for everyone, and replacing a textured leather background and ripped pages with something that actually looks like it was made on a computer contributes to that.

      But everyone has their own preferences, and it doesn't seem likely that we'll be changing them any time soon! Hopefully we're given choices in the future, or can customize UIs to our liking more easily.

    • DonGateley
      March 30, 2015 at 5:45 pm

      Dann, I'm not sure why you say that reducing visual and cognitive load is good. It's what we do with baffling ease throughout the course of a day. Mostly as a background process. I would argue that a button which really looks like a button or a switch that looks like a switch is of _lower_ cognitive load in the fact that the artwork on it is mnemonic which reduces cognitive load by making function more obvious. Your brain has less load in figuring out what the area it occupies actually does.

      My heavy duty computing experience goes back to before display technology was adequate for skeuomorphic presentation, when everything was minimalist and flat because that was all that was possible. The introduction of skeuomorphism, as technology began to allow it, added warmth as well as being visually mnemonic and was thus considered a big improvement. Having been through that transition, the movement backward that's occurring now puzzles me.

      Sure there is bad art and good art but why no art is now considered superior to both mystifies me.

    • Stephan Huebner
      April 1, 2015 at 6:00 am

      I don't buy the argument that flat design is lowering the bar for a developer, not at all. I'd assume that in 99 % of all cases a developer uses nothing but the standard UI elements provided by the development system. The only thing a dev need to care about is the size of the elements and the placement. But that process is the same, regardless if its flat design or a fancy one. The best example for this that comes to mind are themes available for many Linux-desktops. Many of them use the same underlying structures, with the main differences often in the placement of the buttons for minimizing or closing windows. But apart from that, an apps structure is still the same, the app-devs clearly don't have to care about the theme that is being used.

    • Stephan Huebner
      April 1, 2015 at 6:12 am

      @DonGateley: I agree on the "lower cognitive load" argument 100%. Extreme minimalsm, imho, often makes it more difficult not only to recognize what a certain element does, but also often makes it more difficult to even *find* or *see* an element (again: Scrollbards...). It get's even worse if a GUI-element is hidden by default and only available via mouse overs or whatever. I'm not even talking about newbies who might not have a clue that there is something to discover (like the hidden menubar-entries in Ubuntu/Unity, what a bs idea that was). But if even seasoned computer users have trouble finding and/or using something that should be plainly visible and easily usable there's something seriously wrong in the design department.
      Case in point once again the scrollbars in Ubuntu. The new design makes them so thin that they're almost invisible. And when one decides to use the scrollbars, there's this ugly button that magically appears *outside the window borders*. That makes no sense at all. Plus, it makes resizing a window really difficult. I can't say how often I just wanted to resize a window on Ubuntu (which is a drag in itself because it's a matter of moving your pointer over the width/height of a few millimeters), only to be greeted with the dreaded appearing scrollbars. Which makes it necessary to move the pointer away and hope I'll hit the right point next time. I think the infamous G-spot is easier to locate. :-P

    • DonGateley
      April 1, 2015 at 6:32 am

      @Stephan, and I must agree with respect to developer effort and skill if the developer is merely using drag and drop from a library of objects to assemble a UI. But the UI designs I remember most fondly utilized some artistic capability and that is what is totally lost with flat.

      OTOH, it's exactly my total lack of such artistic sense that inhibited me from getting into app development that wasn't for the command line and I might even be rich today without that fear. :-)

    • Dann Albright
      April 1, 2015 at 7:15 am

      I think minimalism can be a bit more cognitively taxing, but after you get used to it, it's not so bad. There are some conventions that designers seem to stick to, and those can give you hints as to what to expect from an interface. I just think that skeuomorphism adds more things for your brain to process, and that's a bad thing if they don't serve a purpose (that's what my admittedly limited reading on willpower and ego depletion seem to suggest, anyway). Of course, too much minimalism can be problematic. Especially if you can't find the scrollbars. :-)

      Skeuomorphism does add warmth, but I think it can be overdone. We haven't hit the middle ground yet, but I'm hoping that we can figure it out soon!

    • Stephan Huebner
      April 1, 2015 at 8:27 am

      @Don: I see what you mean, and in that regard I agree. It should be possible to create something unique when it's necessary or just makes your app better looking. A virtual sound studio comes to mine, with knobs that look like the real thing or all kinds of other GUI items that represent their real counterparts. With the ugly flat design this is all impossible.
      @Dann: Regarding the "hints as to what to expect", I think Apple has done some silly things years ago particularly with tabs (or subpages or whatever the name is in GUI development) which suddenly didn't look like tabs at all anymore. Apple has lost lots of its high ground regarding good GUI design, imho.
      Unfortunately I don't share that optimism that we're heading towards a middle ground. GUIsjust get uglier and uglier and harder to use, no matter where I look.

    • Dann Albright
      April 3, 2015 at 9:21 am

      Stephan, I'm not especially optimistic that we'll reach a middle ground . . . I just hope that there is one, and that someone finds it eventually. Extremes tend to dominate, but hopefully things will get a bit more toned down in the future.

  4. Dennis
    March 27, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    I really dislike a lot of the new designs and find the things they added to make things simpler are actually making things harder to use. Take Androids new Material Design. I have to look all over the screen to find the little red dot that allows me to create an email. Why can't all the controls be in the same place on the screen not scattered all about and bouncing around like a kids toy.

    And the new desktop Google Contacts. The search feature is totally broken now. I search for one contact and it pulls up dozens of contacts that are not in my address book but might live near by or might have created an article about some word that I searched for or appeared in a TV show at one time. So I have to search through the search to find the name I searched for in my contacts.

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:49 am

      I've been annoyed by Google Contacts for quite a while now, but I don't think that's a UI design issue; it just includes a lot of features that are irritating! Material design is an interesting one, and I feel the same way. I like the new Wunderlist, for example, with the floating "new item" button, but with things like email, sticking with familiar patterns and placements is probably a good idea.

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. Slartibartfast
    March 27, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    BlackBerry 10 came out in early 2013 with a hybrid design. Almost entirely flat, it was ahead of iOS on that front, but for some inexplicable reason the home screen was skeumorphic (and ugly too). Luckily with OS version 10.3 they went flat on the home screen too (and really spiffed up the rest of the flat design as well).

    It is not just the graphics that make for skeumorphism, even terminology can fall into this trap. Even on Windows 8.1 the main work surface is still called the "desktop". I find myself wondering if 50 years from now people using painting programs will still use "pencil", "eraser", and "paintbrush" tools even though physical versions will have been relegated to museums.

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:47 am

      Great point about skeuomorphic labels; that's a really fascinating observation. Desktop, trash, all of the painting tools, even the idea of copying and pasting all draw their names from things we don't use anymore (at least not in the same way on the computer). Some of them have good purposes; the tools provide a real-world experience in the way they create lines, for example, but the "recycle bin" on my computer looks like a real bin and fills up with paper. There's no need for that. Though "recycle bin" and "trash" might be better labels than "deleter"—that's just boring.

      Thanks for reading! I have a lot to think about now; I'll be paying more attention to the labels of the things on my computer and my phone.

  6. Stephan Huebner
    March 26, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    I think that designers these days are pretty much extremists. They're overdoing a style. They did it with Skeyomorphic design and they do it now with the flat design.

    Using something like "leather bound" looks on digital devices was overkill. But so is the extreme reduction to flat design. Both decrease usability (at least for me), by making it more difficult to recognise the important elements or separations between different kinds of elements.
    One example for me would be the brightly (blue I think?) coloured buttons, scrollbars etc. in early OS X that were a bit too distracting. I think one of the later iterations had grey buttons that still represented real 3D-plastic buttons. Recognizable but not too distracting.
    The other extreme example (for flat design) are scrollbars that have no depth at all, have only one colour, no shadow and are nearly as thin as a string. Or buttons that are almost the same colour as their surroundings, no depth and are only outlined by a very thin border. Again, too much, to unrecognizable for me.

    There should be some middle ground between both extremes, GUI elements which are not too distracting, but also not too unrecognizable. I highly dislike both of the extremes and I think that designers today are more interesting in promoting their style than in usability.

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:45 am

      I totally agree with the call for middle ground. But where that middle ground lies is difficult to figure out! For example, I agree with you that buttons should be very clear; but I really like the minimalist scrollbars, because they stay out of the way. Maybe we should start building highly customizable UIs into everything. That'd be pretty cool. :-)

      You have a point about designers trying to promote their style; and while they may sometimes detract from usability, it's an understandable tradeoff. If you come up with a new type of design, and a lot of people adopt it, you're going to make a lot of money. Even if you design something to be very similar to someone else's design—Apple's, say—that could draw a lot of people to your product. So while I agree that we need to find an acceptable middle ground, I do understand why people follow the trends so aggressively.

      Thanks for your comment!

    • Stephan Huebner
      April 1, 2015 at 5:44 am

      @Dann Albright: Unfortunately, the trend seems to be restrict people from customizing UIs, even on Linux, which is a shame.
      And if there *are* possibilities, they're usually either still too limiting, too difficult to use or not well documented.

      Btw: I absolutely dislike the minimal scrollbars, especially the ones in Ubuntu. I can understand why they're there on some mobile GUIs but don't see any good reason for them on the Desktop.

    • Dann Albright
      April 1, 2015 at 7:21 am

      Yeah, UIs aren't getting any more open. And what options are there aren't great; I don't have any experience with Linux, but OS X is only slightly customizable. Some apps help, but it's still not all that much.

      I'll have to go check out the Ubuntu scrollbars . . . I tend to like minimal ones, but I don't know what they're like on that system.

    • Stephan Huebner
      April 1, 2015 at 8:32 am

      Apple has always had a tight grip on their GUI-design and for some short years I really liked their approach. But, imho, they lost their way as well with that stupid flat design. And there have been trends in the Linux world to inhibit GUI-changes as well.

      Better not check out the Ubuntu-scrollbars. They're an abomination, imho and I want to slap their designers with a telephone book every time I have to use them.

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