When Jonathan Ive at Apple launched iOS7, he made the bold decision of removing most of the "skeuomorphic" design features of the Apple operating system, i.e. those details that make the software appear like its real life counterpart - for example, the "old school microphone" look of the pre-iOS7 voice recorder.
It was a controversial decision to make. As technology begins to represent the real world less and less, what does this mean for design and usability? Are we living in a post-skeuomorphic world where technology is designed to exist in and of itself or do we still need these design cues to make sense of virtual design?
We asked two web designers to give us the arguments for skeuomorphic design vs its opposite: flat design. In the blue corner, Nathan Benhamou, UX designer, who wants to make technology that even his mum can use. In the red corner, Jesse Benjamin, Graphic Developer, who is totally over putting stitching on calendar apps.
Ding ding ding! Let the battle commence.
Nathan says …
1. Design should fit to the product’s target: not everyone lives in Kreuzberg and works in marketing or art.
One of the most important tasks of a designer is to take into account all the information from the different departments, such as marketing or finance. I believe we too often consider design as the end-result of a single person, whereas we should take design as a result of teamwork.
Every time I design a website, I ask myself: “would my mum understand this feature?”.
Why is iOS so intuitive and so popular ? I’m sure you’ve heard stories of four or 70 year-olds who learnt how to use their iPad amazingly quickly. My guess is that the skeuomorphism of those interfaces made them less abstract to these populations and makes the learning process easier.
2. Changing to flat design will involve a radical change in your brand identity ( = more budget, more resources)
For an existing business, the transition from skeuomorphic to flat design might be tough. In the end, it costs a lot of time and money. You should consider that it might be disturbing for your audience too, since it’s a radical move. So you really need to ask yourself if it’s worth it.
As more and more projects use flat design, it becomes less unique. You don’t want be just be one more copycat.
3. Just like every trend, it won’t last
We don’t really know now what the next trend will be. For instance, it’s quite funny to see companies who spent a lot of money to create responsively designed websites in the last few years are now going back to mobile versions because it’s more efficient. Don’t get hypnotized by buzzwords!
4. Don’t rely on the wow-effect, focus on efficiency
This is general design advice. Define KPIs for your project, and measure them. Design should serve these goals – i.e. it should actually work as well as it looks. No one cares about a Ferrari with a Austin Mini engine !
5. The right solution might be, as usual, in between
Skeuomorphism or flat design are useful only as far as they add something valuable to your service.
The most important thing is not to forget that design is meant to make your product more attractive, easier to use, more profitable and overall, to help you reach the goals you set at the beginning.
Jesse says …
1. The Warm and Fuzzy feeling is over
Originally there was a reason for skeuomorphic design – it gave you “the warm and fuzzy feeling” of traditional craft – stitching together a calendar, for example. It lends a familiar touch to something absolutely unfamiliar. Even if the functions are completely different, we can still see that’s what it does.
By now, however, there’s no need to tell people you’re able to delete files by showing them something that looks like a wastepaper basket. People have become accustomed to it really fast.
2. It’s patronising
Basically, it’s belittling, in the sense that advertising, or German television is belittling. It appeals to the smallest common denominator. It tries to coax you into believing you’re touching something real. It’s a needless trick.
3. It’s limiting
The function of an app doesn’t need to be limited by its real life counterpart. Why does the calculator app have to be laid out the way that a real life calculator works, for example? This is a bugbear of mine. Why does the “screen” of the iOS calculator app have to be one line? We could have loads of lines of text on that little screen – you could see all the calculations you have previously made. I could retrace every step I took, which would be useful!
4. It holds back digital from creating its own, more fitting solutions
Hopefully we’re moving into a more coherent design situation. There’s something intrinsic to it now, the way we interact with digital objects. You could look at the way kids are so used to touch screens, for example, that means they will try to swipe the page of a real-life newspaper, or try to remember something by swiping their forehead. The cool thing about it is that when you move away from it you can see there’s a craft in it, there’s a worth in creating your own, solely digital, gestures.
I can see that there’s an accessibility issue, but I personally think that good design is disconnected from the medium. If it’s good design, it should function whether it’s IRL or digital.