On Skeuomorphism

Last week I embarked upon a brief aside into my professional world of Graphic Design, dear Hypothetical Audience, by casting a critical eye over the web design at the Guardian, and to follow up I’ve decided to talk a bit about skeuomorphism and the recent trends for “flat design” in the tech areas in recent years. So everyone’s up to speed, skeuomorphism is essentially when something has been designed to resemble something else, usually meaning a device replicates the look of a previous object that fulfilled the same roll. A brilliant example, and one I. going to talk more about, would be computer note taking programmes that have lined paper textures to emulate the note pad you would have used to have owned. They were incredibly populer towards the end of the twentieth century and whilst have been on something of a decline the last few years are still very much with us.

Now, not all skeuomorphs are exclusively in the digital domain. Out in the real world we get things like wood paneling on cars and electrical devices, or phone and tablet cases designed to look like books and so on. Sometimes it’s to blend in with its surroundings, but mostly its to foster a familiarity with something that’s new and interesting. Back in the ’70s and early ’80s literally every imaginable item of electrical goods, from TVs to the Atari 2600, had pine panelling because it would make the device look like it belonged alongside every other items in someone’s living room. Problem is, as times change, so do styles, and that notion of skeuomorphism would lead to the objects ageing terribly.

By and large consumer product design moved away from these trends into styles that are more based around the device themselves. While this has it’s own issues, thinking specifically of the Beige era of computing from the early ’80s to the early ’00s, but is an overall improvement if you ask me. Skeoumorphic product design does seem to be clinging on in portable consumer electronics, though, with the early PDAs in the 1990s desperately trying to emulate the filofax style of personal organiser and even now the Samsung Galaxy Note range of (and I hate this word) “phablets” have a rather twee faux-leather effect back plate, but are still very much in the minority right now. In regards to physical objects, most technology it used to be applied to has matured to the point it’s almost become ubiquitous, meaning we no longer have to convince ourselves they’re something they are not. At least until the next time something new and interesting comes along to try and wow us anyway.

Digital skeuomorphism is another matter entirely. Early computing had no such detailing, mostly because the devices were involved were invapable of rendering things like that. But, as technology advanced we started to be able to produce more and more lifelike graphics, and then we began to make the applications look like the things they were designed to so their users could “feel at home” with them. Things progressed even further and even the tiniest screen could produce accurate-to-life images, which led to things getting a bit nuts. Everywhere you looked brushed steel or glass menu bars presided over realistic paper word processors and leather effect contacts lists. Apple particularly were serial offenders with ridiculous heights like the aforementioned contacts app (with leather based on a seat on a private jet according to an anecdote I once read) or the realistic baize background in the games centre app. This progressed to various rediculous heights until Microsoft produced Windows 8 which stripped all of that away in favour of the solid colours and strong grid based layout. A year later Apple followed suit with iOS7 which again removed a lot of the visual ornamentation, which flowed into OSX Yosemite a year later. Google followed suit with “Material Design” in 2014 meaning all three major OS companies have thrown aside skeuomorphism onece again. Public reaction has mixed to say the least, which I find fascinating.

Common criticisms leveled against this trend have followed a couple of very specific, almost related line, namely “It looks childish” and the ever aggravating “My child could have done better.” The latter is just pointless dismissal, the kind that annoys the hell out of me but is ultimately pointless. Now the former, however, I find very interesting. It seems like a bit of a knee-jerk reaction at first but I think it’s an interesting display of how we’ve become conditioned by familiarity. For years we’ve taken ultra-realistic imagery as a sure fire sign of the future, regardless of whether it genuinely looked good or was future proofed. Now that’s being stripped away, people assume it’s not progress, indeed quite the contrary. This all ignores the fact that there is no real link between aesthetics and technological progress, just look at how cars fifty years ago looked more streamlined than they did thirty years ago, or that the basic shape of airliners has remained unchanged for decades, depsite in both cases the internal components has continued to evolved. Decrying a change in style as “childish” or a “backwards step” suggests whoever’s issuing the dismissal is using the knee jerk to avoid articulating their own dislike of something properly. If anything, I find the skueomorphic interfaces more childish, in a “Lets Pretend This Is A Book” way.

Much like with the physical designs I talk about above, I think the way we’re gradually phasing out the skeuomorphism in interface design shows how we’re becoming more comfortable with the technology we’ve created. No more do we have to convince people that the glass and steel thing in their hands is a book/notepad/whatever, just saying “Tablet” is enough, and the way we design for them is changing to fit. As the technology becomes more and more part of our everyday lives the trend can only continue. Not to say that all things will merge into one, identical look, though. As I mentioned, the big three OS companies have their own design languages right now, each distinct and each with their own strength and weaknesses, and there are many other examples in existence with different companies and designers taking their own approach. While the contrast to what has come before is incredibly jarring, I’ll freely admit, it’ll eventually become the norm and I think things will be much better because of it.

Like all things, styles change and evolve alongside the societies that create them. Skeuomorphism as it stands today has evolved out of our replacing things directly with their technological successor, and in that respect it has done it’s job well enough. But I feel it has had its day in it’s current form. As we grow more accustomed to the world we are creating for ourselves we no longer need to create metaphors to relate to it and eventually we’ll be able to put that particular trend to bed. At least until the next big unknown comes along to apply it to, anyway.

—Has never knowingly been a skeuomorph. Yet.

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