Skeuomorphism

I didn’t understand the concept of skeuomorphism when I read the definition. (apparently WordPress doesn’t either, it keeps telling me to fix my spelling…) Skeuomorphism is the concept of reiterating something that was necessary in an old version, into a newer version. Yes, it is confusing to think about. But when you see it in action, it’s obvious.

On the iPad, it isn’t necessary to turn the pages like you would when reading a physical book. But Apple is notable  (some may say notorious) for implementing skeuomorphism into their software. To make reading a book on the iPad more familiar, they kept the feeling of turning the page of a physical book in digital device.

I was oblivious to this before. But, I think most people are unless they study a little design.

It’s completely unnecessary, but this feature is very popular in tablets and e-readers. Book worms just love the feeling of turning the page, it creates suspense for one. And it’s also something that they’re very used to. I’ve even seen book lovers choose an e-reader based only on this feature.

More examples of skeuomorphism.

iCal looks like a calendar. Even down to the ripped page effect. Suede is even added.

Piano app is a piano.

Notice the bumps? Now look at your keyboard.

Newsstand is exactly that – a shelf with magazines and newspapers.

More suede.

Many argue against Apple’s use of skeuomorphism, saying it goes against the minimal design of their hardware and that skeuomorphism is just plain bad design. I’ve seen arguments about how it restrains innovation because it uses what was already used before and not something new and fresh. It’s been called a tool that designers use to make life easier without putting forth much effort. Some have even gone as far as to call skeuomorphism an excuse that designers use when they are having trouble coming up with something new.

The reason for using skeuomorphism are simple.

 Things are familiar and, therefore, easier to use in the beginning and all the time afterwards. The learning curve is almost nonexistent if you already have an idea of the real-world counterpart. (ex: calendar and iCal)

The beauty of it is that a 5 year old as well as an 80 year old won’t have much difficulty. It’s universal and something well understood. And since it looks familiar, it will also look and feel familiar. Making the experience seem much easier than it already is.

Even the Apple Developer documents includes guidelines on OS X Human Interface. The use of metaphors and mental models are encouraged which reminds me of The Design of Everyday Things. [see: Design Psychology]

Take advantage of people’s knowledge of the world by using metaphors to convey concepts and features of your app. Metaphors are the building blocks in the user’s mental model of a task. Use metaphors that represent concrete, familiar ideas, and make the metaphors obvious, so that users can apply a set of expectations to the computer environment.

~ Apple’s guidelines on use of metaphors

Some may say that adding skeuomorphism design has nothing to do with actually using the product. But I believe that if it has the ability to make things seem familiar and easy to use than that is a good enough reason to do so. No the suede header on iCal has nothing to do with actually using a calendar. Does it seem more inviting and warm with it? I would say yes.

I haven’t heard any complaints of it detracting from the experience from the “average user”. It doesn’t exactly follow Dieter Rams’ 10 principles for good design however I don’t think there are clear cut guidelines for these sorts of things. Arguing between skeuomorphic and minimal design is like arguing over red vs blue. (no, this is not a political analogy…)

For a company like Apple, once you have that winning formula, you keep with it. You make small improvements over time. Skeuomorphism always worked for them and I believe it always will. With technology moving as such a fast pace, Apple will be that company that continues to be user friendly.

~ Imtiaz Majeed

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5 thoughts on “Skeuomorphism

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  3. Skeuomorphism is infinitely tacky but it actually not that hard to understand. I realize this is an older post but wanted to comment on the fact that while in the early days of UI design it was reasonable to argue that without Skeuomorphic cues the common user (most of whom were totally new to computers) would not fully comprehend what could be interacted with and what could not, so it was simple way to make this more intuitive, but it was never ever tasteful. It was only ever the best option in a situation were the resources to do things another way didn’t exist either with the user or with the technology.
    I realize that Wikipedia seems to have defined skeuomorphism as strictly legacy characteristics, but I am not sure if I agree there because I have seen industrial designs in 3D media pretending to be flat as well and it was equally tasteless. When all is said and done it’s really just a lot more mature to design with the limitations of a medium in mind, accepting them, accounting for them and working with them rather than trying to pretend the medium is …something it isn’t.

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