Skeuomorphism describes a digital design approach where items are made to resemble their real-world counterparts. One example would be making a document delete feature look like an old-style dustbin. The idea behind skeuomorphism is that anyone should be able to identify design features and guess what they do.
Although the design approach has fallen from favor in recent years, it’s helped many people through their first digital experiences.
Skeuomorphism isn’t a modern invention, conceived only at the birth of the digital era. Ancient civilisations frequently used skeuomorphic elements in their design when introducing new and unfamiliar materials – perhaps to offer the comfort of familiarity to the user.
When the Minoans used clay to make drinking vessels they often imitated the rivets on metal ones in the design, and ancient Greek temples imitate carpentry elements such as stone rafters in buildings made out of stone and marble. In the modern era, Ford and Chevrolet used imitation wood to create vehicle bodies when real wood became impractical to use in car design.
During the digital era, skeuomorphism really came into its own as a way of guiding users through functionality.
Skeuomorphism can be very helpful when people encounter a totally new function or app, as it helps them guess what to expect. It’s been a strong trend pretty much from the start of the discipline of online design.
Steve Jobs championed the design concept at Apple meaning many people became used to the conventions it employs. A generation of web users has come to expect the shopping cart or basket to contain their online purchases, and to associate a paper envelope icon with getting access to their digital mail.
Some of the symbols used in skeuomorphism are now highly outdated. A new generation of net natives is now starting to dominate as consumers of digital design.
These younger web users aren’t likely to remember paper index cards of the kind used in municipal libraries, yet the ‘tab’ style continues to dominate many websites. Those born from the early nineties onwards may never have used a floppy disk yet they’ll have associated an icon of one as the save button.
Many won’t ever have used a yellow legal pad with lines and a margin, last in common use in the 70’s. Yet this has been the design for the Apple Notes app for most of their lives.
For this reason, skeuomorphic design elements such as the ones described above are no longer a helpful guide to functionality for the same reasons they once were.
The real-world items they represent are no longer in everyday use, so there’s less reason to employ skeuomorphic design conventions to help inform new web users. In some cases – such as the shopping cart or envelope icons – the digital equivalents of email and online shopping have replaced them.
Younger web users could already have learnt to associate yellow manila folder icons with accessing documents, even though it’s more than likely they’ve never handled a manila folder in real life.
If designers use skeuomorphic design now, it’s because these visual guides have now passed into convention for digital rather than because of their original meaning to the user.
Naff design trend
The design approach has now fallen out of fashion for other reasons too. Part of the problem is that Apple went a bit overboard with the skeuomorphic principle, making the iBooks app resemble a cheap pine bookshelf to use just one example.
Many design purists found it all a bit naff, and certainly incongruous with the modern devices they ran on. There’s also a limit to how far skeuomorphic design can really go before it gets confusing.
Although some functions lend themselves to skeuomorphic design, it’s harder to find a real world equivalent for some of the functionalities digital offers.
Some elements of skeuomorphic design can be more easily dropped than others. Designers clung to the principle of making buttons look like real-world buttons for a long time, using 3D effects such as drop shadows to imply the button was a real physical one that could be manipulated by the user.
But experienced web users know to look out for buttons now, and even Apple has switched to a ‘flat’ (ie 2D) button design for things such as apps. Other skeuomorphic design elements may linger longer.
Ultimately, skeuomorphic design isn’t about imitating some long-forgotten pre-digital design elements. It’s about using familiarity to encourage and support users. With a net-native generation now dominating the internet’s user base, what the average internet user considers to be familiar may have evolved somewhat compared to the early days of digital design.
The save icon is now the save icon, its real world equivalent (the floppy disk) now forgotten.
Skeuomorphic design elements don’t have the same meaning they once did to early internet users, but that doesn’t stop them being familiar and recognizable to most web users. It probably makes sense to continue with some of these conventions simply because they offer familiarity to existing web users.
If you’re approaching a digital design project, the best approach is always to employ a robust testing program to get to the bottom of which design approach works for you.
A user testing program will help you understand whether users from your target demographics can easily perform tasks on your site.
A typical test might be to see if they can more easily complete a purchase using flat or skeuomorphic buttons (2D or 3D). Perhaps a skeuomorphic approach will suit your users best, or you may find they can navigate your digital tools without needing it.