The Great Design Debate of 2012

  • by Ryan Phillips
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The past year saw a lot of big design trends: mega menus, responsive design (which, incidentally, we’ve written about), and larger-than-life background images, to name a few. Out of them all, there is one trend you definitely shouldn’t go through 2013 without knowing about: skeuomorphism.

Skeuo-what?

Skeuomorphism is the imitation of a real world counterpart in a digital design when the design element is not needed for the sake of functionality. Consider the tabs at the top of your internet browser. These were designed to resemble the tabs of filing folders. They may be a good way to organize multiple windows of information and facilitate browsing in a way that is easily understood by being analogous in the physical world, but they aren’t needed for the browser to work.

While this trend isn’t new, the conversation surrounding its use (or misuse) hit the spotlight at end of October. Apple fired Scott Forstall, chief of design at the company and one of the most highly visible proponents of this visual style since Steve Jobs himself. He was replaced by Jonathan Ive, who is known for his polar opposite, no frills, approach to design. Elsewhere, Microsoft released its widely touted operating system, Windows 8, the design of which is made up of flat tiles and uses color, photography, type, and icons to signify their purpose.

So what’s the big deal?

The ongoing debate isn’t just about an aesthetic difference. At the heart, it is about how we interact with the digital realm, both physically and emotionally.

Those in favor argue skeuomorphic design uses visual metaphors familiar to the user in order to effectively guide them. A popular example of this is the many note-taking programs and apps that are styled to mimic how a physical notepad looks. Open the program and you see digitally ruled paper, binding, and sometimes even torn pages. No one needs instructions on how to use a program like this. The visual clues tell you that this is used for taking notes and you input them on the part of the screen that looks like paper.

But what happens when a real world metaphor is no longer relevant? For example, in many computer programs the action of “save” is represented by an icon of a computer disk. No one uses disks to save data anymore and there are growing generations of users who have probably never even seen a computer disk. The relationship of the icon to its function of saving data is learned now, rather than understood by virtue of its metaphor. Visual metaphors can provide contextual clues as to what something does, but time and thought must be given to the currency of the metaphor used.

The visual metaphors used in skeuomorphic design elements can also add an emotional depth to interactions. Graphically mimicking 3D buttons aren’t technically needed for the buttons on a calculator app to work, or any app or website for that matter, but there is an emotional accessibility or comfort level in seeing them. Continuing with the digital calculator example, there is emotional reward or satisfaction in seeing the visual reinforcement of a 3D button compress and decompress followed by a number popup on the calculator screen. Success! Skeuomorphism grounds a purely digital interaction in a familiar and comforting real-world experience.

Yay or Nay?

There are a number of good arguments for coming down on either side of the skeuomorphic debate. Just as with all design decisions, the key is taking the time to think through whether or not your aesthetic choice is appropriate. Are you helping your users in any way? Does a skeuomorphic element add to the emotional experience in a compelling way; does it help your audience easily understand how to navigate your website; does it help you complete a task? Even if it does, is there a better way? If your decision isn’t in service to your goals, you need to rethink your approach.

The coming year will tell whether skeuomorphic design will grow or decline in popularity. With Jonathan Ive newly at the helm of Apple Design coupled with Microsoft’s new and popular Windows 8 operating system, 2013 could be the year design definitively shifts away from skeuomorphism. Either way, this won’t be the last time you hear the term.

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