The Death of Skeumorphism and the Flat Design Movement

With the announcement of the new IOS 7 from Apple, Windows 8, and the “flat” design aesthetic movement, the prevailing opinion in the design world is that the death of skeumorphism is upon us.

photo of i07 screen at WWDC conference 2013

photo credit: Alex Washburn / Wired

Wikipedia defines skeumorphism as “an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material.”  In plainer terms, especially in regards to computer interfaces, it’s those elements that incorporate real world surfaces and textures, like fake wood grains, drop shadows, etc., to make virtual objects appear as if they were made from real life materials, have dimension, etc.

Apple, under Steve Jobs, was frequently cited for its use of skeumorphic elements in their interfaces, such as “leather”, “cloth”, because Jobs wanted his software to feel comfortable to users, familiar and soothing.  Jony Ive, Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple, was well known to loath such unnecessary “visual ornamentation.” The new IOS 7 makes it clear who is in charge of design for Apple now.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I’m all for removing clutter and superfluous elements in my designs and interfaces.  Lately, I’ve been championing flat design aesthetics for Matrix Group clients, in particular for responsive and mobile projects, because simplicity and clarity are preferable on mobile platforms, with their limited screen sizes.  I look at fake wood textures, drop shadows, and gradients with disdain, and think of those types of designs as old-fashioned.

On the other hand, having those kinds of visual ornaments adds a more lifelike quality to what could otherwise be very inhuman, impersonal digital experiences. When I play games, in particular World of Warcraft, the removal of those real world textures and artifacts, even within a purely virtual world, would render my characters and their environments lifeless, dull and boring.

In reflecting on this, and given how long I’ve been in this business, I’m fully aware that advances in technology, human evolution, and design all play a part in our perception of what are “correct” approaches to crafting experiences. I remember when gradients and drop shadows were considered acceptable because of the affordances they granted users in manipulating these interfaces. Now it seems that users no longer need such things to recognize a button or interactive element when they see one. And yet these same users crave a sense of familiarity and comfort when they’re online, in what is increasingly a bewildering landscape of newness and novelty.

What’s the answer?  I don’t really know.  Most of the time, when confronted with a new project, client or brand, the first thing I think about is what is appropriate – to the solutions they are looking for, the customers they are trying to reach, and the experiences they are seeking to create. Each situation is unique, each client is unique, each instance is unique.  The amazing thing about what I do is that the technological landscape is always changing, the solutions are always changing, the platforms are always changing, my clients and their projects are always changing.

I guess that means that the appropriate solution will always keep changing, and I’m totally happy with that.

What’s your take on the move to more flat design (as a consumer or as a designer)?

2 thoughts on “The Death of Skeumorphism and the Flat Design Movement

  1. Maybe this is a sign that I’m getting older, but I’m not ready to move away from the skeumorphism (aka change) – I’ve been delaying moving to iOS7 even though I know I will have too. I’m sure once I do I will probably love it, but for a little longer, I’ll enjoy living in the past.

    I think my org’s next redesign will be interesting when it comes to seeing how my committee members react to incorporating the flat design elements on to the website.

  2. As a consumer, I am getting older and my eyes just aren’t the same. I used to like the lifelike textures but more recently I find them painful and distracting – so much so – that I found myself rejecting good apps that overused them when I was looking for a task list manager for my iPhone earlier this week. The apps that survived my final selection round were the ones that allowed me to choose through settings if I wanted that kind of ornamentation or not. I’m not sure if that would hold true for an OS but it sure did for apps.

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