John Cowen

John Cowen

User Experience • Design • Creativity

In defense of skeuomorphism


Published: July 12 2013

Skeuomorphism is an effect applied to an object that gives it the appearance of being made from a different material. The term's been getting a lot of attention in web design discussions recently and mostly in a negative context.

The arguments against skeuomorphism is that it's lazy, or ugly. The detractors will say we're designing digital interfaces that are made to look like their physical equivalents and this deters innovation. There might be some truth in this - but I'm not inclined to give it too much credence. Of all the problems there might be with digital design, lack of innovation doesn't strike me as being one of them.

In fact, helping users understand and navigate the innovations being introduced is a much greater problem - and skeuomorphism is a valid way of putting a digital tool into a context that an average user can understand.

Apple Skeuomorphic design

Skeuomorphic calendar design from Apple

It's something that could be debated at much greater length - but for the purposes of keeping this blog reasonably succinct, I'm going to say that blocking innovation isn't a valid criticism of skeuomorphism.

The other argument that it's ugly is, for me, a more interesting one. On the one hand I think there are certainly examples which I don't like - Apple's overuse of leather is a prime example - but I think it's also important to recognise this as being personal preference and, to a certain extent, fashion. For all of us who don't care for Apple's excessive leather trim and heavy paper textures, I'm sure there's plenty of people who like it just fine.

A couple of years ago I don't remember there being so much animosity levelled at skeuomorphism, and the change of opinion strikes me as being a change in fashion and subjective taste. There's nothing wrong with that - but it's important to note where something is unpopular because it's 'out-of-fashion' and where it's unpopular because it's design creates some fundamental usability issues.

In the real world (as in: not online) natural materials are typically seen as premium to their manmade equivalents. A leather chair is preferable to a 'leatherette' one. Limestone flooring is preferable to a concrete floor. A real wood countertop is better than a laminated chipboard one and a stainless steel finish is more attractive than a plastic finish.

Windows Metro flat style screen

Flat design from Windows 8

Plastic is a bit of a blank canvas - manufacturers will give it a finish that can be a reasonably good equivalent of most natural materials (skeuomorphism). From a distance you might never know, but when you touch it, by texture or weight it's normally evident it's not the real mccoy. And in use, plastic fades, warps, scratches ... it will only deteriorate. Natural products often improve with age, the wear becomes a patina and tells a story of the product that adds to its appeal.

In the digital world - we essentially only have plastic. Pixels on screen that can emulate texture, but only as a veneer. The skeuomorphism detractors would argue that designers should embrace the true nature of digital and stop pretending. Hence the current trend to 'flat-design' it's arguably a truer representation of the digital surface than glossy buttons, gradients and textures.

In the real world I will always argue in favour of retaining the integrity of materials. But in the real world we have a choice. In digital interfaces there is only a veneer of pixels behind glass (or plastic). And for that reason I think skeuomorphism has its place. Even the flat design is artificial. In fact - the whole medium is artificial and that is it's integrity.

I actually really like a lot of the new wave of flat designs. I am tired with a lot of the uses of skeuomorphism and the freshness of Metro is very appealing. But it's just fashion. I hope the criticisms of skeuomorphism tail off and the veneers on websites becomes increasing varied between the very slick, flat & minimal and texture heavy. As long as they're fundamentally well designed - I don't think there's anything wrong with any of them.

Jason Santa Maria wrote a good article on skeuomorphism that also gives a very balanced view on the subject.

You made it to the bottom! Thanks for reading.

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