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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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
And, of course, there’s the nostalgia factor: whether they miss the days of writing with paper and pen, 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 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.
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?
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. 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.
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):
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 — 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.
This look is echoed in Android’s recent change to material design. 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.
Why this move toward minimalist interfaces? 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.
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!