Skeuomorphism: Tacky or Innovative?

Elise Bowen

December 26, 2012

You remember the 90s. Cheap faux finishes come to mind. My parent’s bathroom had cultured marble vanity tops, “stone” tile linoleum flooring, and water logged particleboard cabinets with a wood grain veneer. These are all beautiful examples of skeuomorphs.

As described by Fast Company, skeuomorphism is “…the idea that new designs retain ornamental elements of past iterations no longer necessary to the current objects’ functions.” The headlight stickers on race cars, the save icon that looks like a floppy disc, the notepad app with binder rings and college rule paper, your book app that makes a paper sound as you turn the textured paper with a hand stitched exotic leather cover. The analog “leftovers” that have carried over into our digital world are under heated debate. Is skeuomorphism still useful or just tacky?

When designing an onscreen environment, you are not confined by the laws of physics, gravity, light, and texture. Why then have these visual elements been created and added to our virtual lives in the first place?

In the skueomorphic camp is Apple. Examples of this design direction are the iBooks app shaped as a bookshelf with actual books inhabiting the wooden shelves and Game Center with its casino green felt surfaces. A former senior iPhone UI (user interface) designer at Apple explains, Apple’s skeuomorphic designs put the user “in the right frame of mind” to use whatever the functions are within the software in the same way walking into a library has a certain vibe or aesthetic that puts you in a certain mood. It is not just what texture or shape things are in, but also how elements act on screen. “Does it slide with momentum or decelerate, or does it behave in a very computer-like, unnatural way?” It is comfortable when objects look, feel, and act the way we are used to.

On the other side of the fence Microsoft’s new Windows 8 UI is an excellent example of letting go of the past and moving on to the future. Metro’s design has abandoned almost every convention in the desktop metaphor. No longer is there the empty desktop surface with the little folder icons. Windows 8 Metro is a touchable and customizable system of tiles that contain live updates and the apps you want available. Screen space is completely maximized and there is definitely no green felt or wood grain. It is pushing out of the box by creating a brand new way to interact with our computers and applications. This way of thinking doesn’t feel bogged down with the rules of the physical world and feels more aligned with today’s technologically advanced lifestyle.

This debate is ongoing. Designers and non-designers alike are taking sides. Carved mahogany surfaces or simple colored pixels?

I like the way Oliver Reichenstein puts it.

Skeuomorphic interfaces make new users think:

“I know how to use this!” (Which is always a false promise)

Instead of:

“Looks like I need to learn to use this.” (Which is always the case)

In my opinion, skeuomorphism still has a place in today’s UI design, but only if used in moderation. Too many embellishments and too much ornamentation can be distracting and frankly annoying. It is the designer’s responsibility to present the BEST solution for the problem; and in our ever evolving, technology driven world, the best solution is that which is the most functional, simple, and user-friendly. So while an imitation of the world we live in is always welcome because of its familiarity, I’m not necessarily jumping at the thought of seeing more faux wood paneling in my kitchen or in the software I use.