Bringing Back Skeuomorphic Design

By Prosyscom
In March 9, 2018
79 Views


This story was adapted from the original on Prototypr.

Last Thursday I posted some recent work to Dribbble. More than 10,000 views later, we could be starting a revival movement. The reaction to this particular work was so strong that I felt I had to share some thoughts.

See, I was recently commissioned to come up with a redesign of the calendar and note-taking app Opus One and I was excited to share this particular bit of work–not only because I really liked how it came out, but because it represented the sort of work I have always loved doing: themed UI carefully crafted to create a memorable experience through textures, lighting, and dimensionality. A UI that is fun, takes cues from the real world for context, and aims to be delightful, simply for the sake of invoking a feeling in the user.

In other words; a skeuomorphic design.

Opus One, landscape and portrait orientations. [Image: courtesy of the author]

It’s been 1,730 days since iOS 7 was announced at Apple’s WWDC in 2013. That’s 1,730 days since the design community first reeled from what they saw onstage and then collectively changed direction in how we create digital interfaces. The reaction, as with all reactionary trends, was to throw out everything that came before and fully embrace this new direction of minimalist UI, white space layouts, and magazine typesetting. Some argue that it was a timely change to meet the demands of the increasing complexities of the interface. That we had grown out of the need to include real-world cues in our digital analogies. That we were evolving the interface.

With this simplification of solid-colored blocks and text-style buttons, we could focus completely on function and less on form. It made design more accessible, since most people could put colored blocks together and make it look clean. Indeed it was the great democratization of design. A good interface no longer required a Photoshop wizard with 10,000 hours of digital woodworking experience.

New vector-based tools rose up to meet the challenges of the new designer. With the marginalization of visual design, UX became a thing (even though it had always been a thing) and a generation of designers came of age holding minimalism in high regard. No interface was the best interface at all.

To a large extent, I believe the design industry was better off for this shake-up. The green felt and the linen–oh, the linen–had probably become too much. Besides, as in all areas, we sometimes need a good paradigm shift to make us think differently.

But I’d argue that the great simplification of the visual interface had an air of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Hold your pitchforks and let me explain.

“Skeuomorphic” became one of the nastiest things you could say about a design. A swear word, almost. A hilarious dig at the designers who relied on real-world follies to communicate abstract concepts and the silly users who enjoyed them. The word skeuomorphic itself got slammed onto anything that had the slightest air of a theme, too heavy a gradient, or too thick a drop shadow–stretching the definition to cover almost anything that wasn’t flat. Now it’s a word we’re stuck with even though most designers probably prefer more descriptive (and accurate) terms. You can be absolutely sure that I’m going to get more than one smug comment about the headline of this post. That’s the state of people’s feelings toward this word and everything it has been made to stand for.

It’s easy to see skeuomorphic design pieces as dated–most of them are because we collectively stopped doing them. Most visual designers of that time moved on to make simpler UIs and, like myself, found their playful fix through game interface design, icon design, and other places where you weren’t laughed out of the room for playing with gradients and lighting.

But something is changing.

Google made gradients and shadows less of a design offense with its Material Design, and I’m seeing more and more tactility make its way into interfaces around me. Buttons have started to stand out. Whimsy has started to be a differentiating factor–not just in animation and interaction (where whimsy was banished to live under the rule of minimalism) but also in visual design. It’s been a slow march back toward bringing fun into UI design again–but I finally feel like we’re close.

Project requests like the Opus One are a blip on the radar of this type of thinking. We are coming out of a period in interface design where “design for design’s sake” has been ridiculed for years and we’re now starting to see clients ask for some of that fun back. If only as a differentiating factor. But maybe an even better indicator that things are changing is the design community’s response. It’s 2018 and that Opus One shot made it to the front-page of Dribbble. A decidedly skeuomorphic design made it to the popular page of Dribbble between flat UI and illustrations. That, to me, is the biggest endorsement and an open opportunity for alternative thinking in interface design.

It’s prohibition and the ban has been lifted on fun.

[Image: courtesy of the author]

Don’t get too caught up in my specific rendering of that calendar. Like any design, it would be all too easy to find fault with one example. The comeback of fun in interface design is not predicated on you liking one particular solution–that would be missing the point. And sure, many of us are just being nostalgic. That’s a fair argument too, accounting for some of the responses.

Yet still, I have this feeling that things are shifting. I am not advocating a full comeback of the linen or the stitched leather-wrapped Find Your Friends or the green felt-embellished Gamecenter.

I am not saying we should go back in time.

What I am saying, and what I have always said, is that design can be anything we want it to be. We should strive to make fun and memorable experiences that are appropriate to the context, but not arbitrarily restricted.

There’s a great deal of sameness in design these days, and I think we can challenge that if we’re willing to let go of some of the minimalist ideals and start thinking about how we can infuse our designs with fun. Start thinking about form instead of just function. Allow ourselves to embellish in the name of orchestrating an experience. Delight as a differentiating factor. If we have to call it skeuomorphic, then so be it. Let’s own it then.

If you’re a client, ask your designer to veer off the path of minimalism. If you’re a designer, don’t be afraid to use whatever tool you feel is appropriate in giving the experience you want the user to have.

Let’s throw off the shackles of minimalism and make UI fun again.

Michael Flarup is a Danish designer, entrepreneur, and keynote speaker. He runs entertainment development studio Northplay, Pixelresort, and design resource platform Apply Pixels.

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