Two topics caused a decent amount of activity last week on the twitters, the release of the iPhone 5 and skeuomorphism. The discussion over skeuomorphism was spawned by the snarky new site, skeu.it, which lists visual examples of skeuomorphism in UI design. Despite what you may be reading in the comments below the images, we once loved this approach to design. What the hell happened?

I will take a stab at what I think is going on here.

Disclaimer: This article is based on observation. No firm research has been done aside from experience in UI/UX. You've been warned ;-)

Apple vs. Samsung. A couple of weeks ago, Apple won a big case against Samsung over copyright infringement. Say what you will about the case, if you see the “before” and “after” shots of Samsung's UI in context of the first release of the iPhone, it looks pretty incriminating. There has been lots of emotion and opinion around the case, rekindling some anti-Apple sentiment in the community. I hypothesize this to have a lot to do with the disdain for skeuomorphism.

Why? When the first generation iPhone was released in 2007, it brought with it slew of native apps to do just about any task you could think of. A major pattern used in the design of the interface of these apps was skeuomorphism. You seeing my connection, here? So anti-Apple sentiment, even if you are a fan, has kicked up some dust in places you may not directly associate with Apple. Much like when you are mad at your dad, so you take it out on your little brother (What? I'm the only one?).

Again, these are just observations.

Another reason why I think comments like Skeuomorphism. Worst. Design. Ever. are on the rise is due to designers using this pattern at our whim. The project may not call for the approach, but we shoe-horn the pattern into our look and feel. A big part of design is the consideration of function and context of use. I have often said personally that If you are not considering function, you are not designing. That statement comes from the idea of the Designer vs. the Stylist in the book Logos and Toothpicks. Designers acting as stylists choose form over function and apply skeuomorphism to contexts that are not design appropriate.

So, now we have two proposed reasons as to why skeuomorphism is catching the hate vibe—anti-Apple sentiment and inappropriate design context. But I want to remind you, just like a boyfriend in the break-up talk, of all the good times we had using it. We once admired designs that used it. We strove to accomplish it within our own designs. We used to love it… And I think we still do.

We were so good together! One of the reasons that skeuomorphism has persisted for so long in our library of styles and patterns is because of the two-dimensionality that is inherent in digital devices. The advent of the touch screen accentuates it even more. Every moment that your finger spends touching the glass surface is another moment your are phsically reminded of the barrier between you and the product you are using. From a branding perspective, this makes it difficult to form the emotional bond needed to inspire brand loyalty.

We had some great times. Skeuomorphism helps to create the illusion of three-dimensionality, alleviating a bit of the artificial-ness of smart phone apps. What's more, as we are visually-driven creatures, it invokes excitement in using the product, provided that the illusion is convincing. To add to that emotion, many have conjured the spirits of nostalgia by emulating the appearance of technology from the yesteryears (I'm looking at you, YouTube!). Technology whose obsolescence could not be more emphasized than their appearance on a digital device and, yet, we are swooned by nostalgia and make the emotionally connection.

We both made some mistakes. Because of the emotional response, skeuomorphism, in all its hotness, garnered quite a social life. It began to show up everywhere. The modeling of light and shade, the zig-zag edge of news print, the stitching of fabric, the crinkle of leather—all patterns and styles that have been used and, arguably, in excess. But there have been several instances where it was perfectly fitting for the product or services it described.

Maybe it’s just time to move on. Yeah, maybe. But I don't think we hate it as much as we say. Like all long-term relationships, there are still some lingering feelings. The truth is, it hasn't all been bad and there are still contexts, be it the product or the brand, where skeuomorphism is the better choice. It is up to us, the designers, to make the decision of what that context is.

Disagree? Let’s talk about it below.


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