Taking off the Training Wheels: A Departure from Skeuomorphism

Ever since the unveiling of iOS 7 a few weeks ago, the term “skeuomorphism” has been thrown around a lot. So much, in fact, that it has become synonymous with the “old” Apple. Apple’s decision to veer from extremely literal design elements into the more flat and abstract has sparked a movement – death to skeuomorphism! There are myriad articles praising this departure; a quick Google search will yield pages of results. Overall, I tend to agree that the less pool-table felt and leather saddle stitching the better, however, I think that certain skeuomorphic elements have their place in every design, at least for the time being. 

Initially, skeuomorphism was a tool to ease the common user into getting used to technology. There is no rule that the digital has to look anything like the physical. It’s just more comfortable that way. Familiar physical elements such as ruled notebook paper and round volume knobs were used to add tangible elements to an otherwise foreign and intangible medium. These items are instantly recognizable and inform an action (ex: notebook = write things here). Are the familiar yellow texture and the faint ruled lines functionally necessary to type in your grocery list? Of course not. However, there is something comforting about feeling like you’re using something familiar (even if you’re not at all), instead of realizing that you have to learn something new in order to accomplish a routine task. If good design is all about making the user’s experience easier, subtle skeuomorphism can definitely lend itself to that.

That being said, too much of a good thing can be bad. Sometimes it gets to a point where the more closely a tangible element is emulated on a digital platform, the less sense it makes. Case in point, the “Videos” app. In my opinion, the metaphor is antiquated and takes away from the relevance of the app. An obvious improvement would be to change the action board to a “play” icon. iOS 7 still features an action board, and I definitely think that they missed some low hanging fruit by choosing not to redesign this specific icon. A flat white triangle on a gradient background would have fit in seamlessly with the iOS 7 overhaul.

Skeuomorphs are applicable to the law of diminishing return. Elements such as subtle textures and shadows can aesthetically enhance a design while universal icons such as a receiver telephone can increase clarity and form a universal language. However, stretching to come up with metaphors for every app and then striving to make them look dimensional and glossy like “real” buttons can be tiresome, and adds a level of detail which may not be necessary at this point in the game. “See-and-say” displays are becoming less important as users become accustomed to their devices and the symbols associated with digital interfaces, and less so with those of the physical elements the digital ones emulate. There is a whole generation out there using Apple products who has probably never seen, let alone used, a physical address book or loaded film into an analog camera. In my opinion, Apple should be applauded for deciding to transition out of skeuomorphism – we can handle it.