Skeuomorphism

The Basic Idea

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to delete a file on your computer? It seems so instinctual – you just need to find the trash can. Or, have you ever thought about how, even though we type emails, the icon to start a new email is a pen? Or how the calculator app resembles an actual calculator and sometimes even has a 3D “feel”? These are everyday examples of skeuomorphism, a design concept where digital elements are created to look, feel, and function like their real-world counterparts.

Skeuomorphism, or skeuomorphic design was created to evoke feelings of familiarity and allow users to easily grasp the purpose of a tool. You could probably go through your electronic device right now and find more than a couple of examples. When executed properly, these design elements are so intuitive that you instinctively understand their purpose without a second thought. Skeuomorphism isn’t only present in the digital world. Have you ever noticed that some modern chandeliers use lights that resemble candles? Or that some space heaters are designed to resemble fireplaces, making you feel cozier than a normal radiator?

In essence, skeuomorphism is all about comfort and intuitiveness in design, seamlessly blending the familiar with the new. It’s a powerful design tool that makes products feel more human and thus creates a connection between users and products.

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Frank Chimero, designer and author

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History

Skeuomorphism design has its roots in ancient Greek architecture, blending old styles with new materials. After shifting from wood to stone, Greek temples still included some architectural and design elements that would mimic those present in wood. For example, some buildings included ceiling rafts that were only present for decorative purposes.1

As time progressed, this design philosophy found its way into various aspects of human creation, bridging the gap between old and new, and easing transitions during periods of technological or material change. 

With the rise of the digital era, designers were faced with the challenge of creating what we now know as graphical user interfaces. These needed to be simple and intuitive for users. Before this life-changing shift, computers relied on tedious command lines to run programs and perform what we now think are simple tasks. But graphical user interfaces changed the game, icons resembled their real-world counterparts which made these new digital environments accessible and understandable.

As skeuomorphism became a staple in digital design, it shaped user expectations and interactions with technology. The approach made digital spaces feel less alien and more like extensions of the physical world. However, as users became increasingly tech-savvy and the digital world continued to evolve rapidly, designers began to reconsider their approach. The transition towards minimalism and functionality marked a new era in digital design, reflecting the changing needs and preferences of users. The once-revolutionary skeuomorphic designs, with their lifelike textures and 3D effects, began to give way to cleaner, more functional interfaces. This shift underscored the dynamic nature of design and its continuous evolution in response to user needs and technological advancements.

However, the legacy of skeuomorphism remains significant. Although digital interfaces have shifted to a flat and minimalist style, users still gravitate towards accessories like tablet screen protectors that mimic paper's texture, enhancing the feel of using a digital pen. Skeuomorphic design continues to make products feel familiar and easy to use.

People

Scott Forstall: 

A prominent figure in the tech industry often recognized for his influential role in the development of Apple's iOS software, particularly for his advocacy of skeuomorphic design. His vision and design at Apple revolutionized user interfaces in the digital age.

His approach to design involved incorporating realistic textures and details into the software interface, making digital elements resemble their real-world counterparts. Forstall's vision was to make digital interfaces intuitively familiar, leveraging users' real-world experiences to guide their interaction with technology.

Consequences

Skeuomorphism changed the way we design and use technology. It helped transform the digital world into a familiar space that feels like it's at the same “level” as the real world. It slowly made us relate and feel a connection with products and their function because they looked like things we already knew.

It made both the designer and the user save time. No one had to explain what the trash can icon does, the user made the connection and understood it’s where one would dispose of things inside the electronic device. It also works because it makes the interphase less intimidating, it’s not just pretty it also allows us to learn and understand the digital world. It completely transformed our interaction with screens, it feels natural – and that is the power of design.

Controversies

Skeuomorphic design really changed the world to the point that it made itself less relevant. Because it worked so well and people understood how to use the product – it outdated itself. It might even be working in reverse now. Take today’s younger generation, for example. Most of them have probably never seen a floppy disk in real life, and they might be clueless about why the save icon in a Word document looks like that odd square. Skeuomorphic design could be working in reverse as they may not associate floppy disks with saving things, making the whole interaction less intuitive.

Another issue is the fact that it can be inconsistent across platforms or brands. Each company will design their products slightly differently which can confuse the user and make them search where to find it or how to use it – which defies the whole purpose.

Skeuomorphic design is now part of the familiarity versus simple debate. Some believe making products look exactly like their real-life counterparts is unnecessarily complex and creates visual clutter. But what is clear is that its impact on both the digital and the “real world” is profound, reshaping our interaction with technology and leaving a lasting imprint on how we perceive and use digital tools in our everyday lives.

Case Study

Revolutionizing Interface Aesthetics: Apple's Journey in Skeuomorphic Design

Apple was one of the pioneering companies in adopting skeuomorphic design, integrating it as a key element of their brand. The first Macintosh, released in 1984, featured a desktop trash can icon for deleting files, and a calculator with shadowed number keys, both of which mimicked their real-world counterparts to intuitively bridge the gap between digital functionality and user familiarity. You no longer needed a manual to understand what these features did or how to use them. Their graphic user interface changed the game.

However, Apple wasn’t the only one incorporating skeuomorphic design. For example, Microsoft also embraced a similar mentality and its Windows interphases also included icons that looked like real-world objects.

Apple continued to use skeuomorphism with a noticeable peak happening in 2012 with iOS 6:  the Notes app looked like a classic yellow lined notepad, the Newsstand app looked like an actual bookshelf with magazines on it, and the Voice Memos app had a metallic-looking microphone.2 And in general, everything had a 3D appearance. By this moment they perfected the look of leather, wood and metal to make this connection obvious.

Users became extremely accustomed to digital interphases. The digital world started moving really fast and designers had to reconsider their approach by the time they released iOS 7. What was once a revolutionary design in iOS 6, with its lifelike textures and 3D effects, was now seen as outdated and less sophisticated. It was too “in your face.” The focus shifted towards minimalism and functionality over the mimicry of real-world materials.3

Apple’s journey really encapsulates skeuomorphic design and the evolution of the digital age. It reflects a key chapter in the company’s design history but also the cyclical nature of design trends and their connection and consequences over human experience and behavior.

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References

  1. Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University. (n.d.). Greek Past: Skeuomorphism. Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/greekpast/4697.html
  2. Dilger, D. E. (2022, August 23). What Apple learned from skeuomorphism and why it still matters. AppleInsider. Retrieved from https://appleinsider.com/articles/22/08/23/what-apple-learned-from-skeuomorphism-and-why-it-still-matters
  3. Worstall, T. (2013, September 19). Apple's iOS7: Well, It Was Time For Skeuomorphism To Die. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/09/19/apples-ios7-well-it-was-time-for-skeuomorphism-to-die/?sh=3456f198455a

About the Author

Mariana Ontañón

Mariana holds a BSc in Pharmaceutical Biological Chemistry and a MSc in Women’s Health. She’s passionate about understanding human behavior in a hollistic way. Mariana combines her knowledge of health sciences with a keen interest in how societal factors influence individual behaviors. Her writing bridges the gap between intricate scientific information and everyday understanding, aiming to foster informed decisions.

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