Skeuomorphism

February 14, 2013

“Skeuomorphism” must come up in every discussion about software design. It’s bad, it’s good. It’s a trend, flat design is better. I’m tired.

The first problem is defining it. Every person seems to have a different understanding of what the word means. The primary issue is people are talking about different things with each other.

Find My Friends is often condemned for being too skeuomorphic. Find My Friends uses standard iOS UI that is themed using custom graphics. The fine corinthian leather and stitching does not harken back to a day of fine corinthian leather products we used to use to find our friends. There is no connection to real world objects by using these materials.

Game Center is another app that is used as an example of skeuomorphism. Game Center uses standard iOS UI that is themed using custom graphics. While the polished wood, gold medallions, and green felt recall the feeling of a poker table, at no point does Game Center rely on or suggest that it is a poker table. There are no interactions in Game Center related to playing poker, and no one expects there to be.

Podcasts is yet another example. This app has a beautiful representation of a reel-to-reel that not many of us remember ever using. There are similar controls like play/pause, but other features like share, sleep timer, skip seconds forward and backward were never things that a reel-to-reel could have because of its physical constraints.

In the case of Podcasts, Apple uses an old device to illustrate the use of an app. Of course, by default, the podcast “album” cover obscures the entirety of the reel-to-reel and only displays playback controls and volume, not dissimilar from the Music app where podcasts used to live.

While Podcasts can be rightfully identified as being skeuomorphic (and in some places, the wrong way), it is in this writer’s opinion that it is made to be fun and inviting, not to merely recall a time gone by.

iBooks, an app that was introduced with the original iPad, uses a wooden bookshelf with books outward facing and pages that turn so closely to real life. iBooks is a wonderful example of how skeuomorphism can help a user understand how to use it. The original iPad? “You already know how to use it.” How right they were. It’s not just that we’ve used iPhones before it, but that some interfaces lend themselves to be incredibly easy, like iBooks.

iBooks showed us that we don’t have to just make table cells and navigation bars and buttons. Even though iBooks technically has these things, a user doesn’t parse them the same way as they do when in a “standard” or “unthemed” app like Settings.

As a visual designer, I have not only been witnessing the trend of using real life textures in software, but I’ve gratefully been a part of it. And as a visual designer, I hope it doesn’t change drastically soon, because I love drawing visually rich graphics for the incredible retina displays we have in our pockets and in our bags. It’s really fun, it can be really beautiful, and when applied over a great UI, it can be useful too.

More importantly, a visually distinctive app such as Game Center, Find My Friends, Podcasts, or iBooks helps you to remember which app you’re in. The colors, textures, and environment paint that picture instantly. (When I look at an Android phone, it’s often hard to remember which app I’m in because most default apps look the same and use the same colors and theme.)

Skeuomorphism is a word that everyone disagrees on what it means (or suggests it means all of the above), but is often used to disparage apps that use realistic textures for the sake of joy, beauty, and delight. When talking about an app that uses realistic textures, that’s “theming” or “skinning.” That’s what we used to call it, and that’s what it is.

Making standard UI elements look beautiful shouldn’t be condemned, and it seems that Apple has done a wonderful job in attracting millions of people to use iOS because of these choices. Other apps might be able to get away without using textures and gradients, and that’s fine too. Visual and UI designers should just do the right thing for their users, whatever that means.