Skeuomorphism as a design approach is under a lot of heat now. Mostly triggered by Apple’s contribution to it in its iOS and OS X design, as well as some ‘infamous’ apps (‘Contacts’ for iPad for one) that get things wrong. People embraces the benefit of familiarity it brings to the design, but doesn’t like it when it gets in the way or being fake. Some blame skeuomorphism for the disparity between iOS hardware and software, suggesting a total overhaul of iOS UI is necessary and cheered when Jony Ive took the position of both UI and Industrial Design lead in Apple. Yet we still see Dribble’s ‘Popular’ page flooded with tons of skeuomorphism works. Where are the future heading? To know better, we need to look back and find out where are we from.
1. Day One
We’ve come a long way on user interface design. 30 years ago, when MS-DOS is first released, we have but the green characters and the blinking cursor on-screen to play with. User experience is out of the question, people were still getting excited about the simple fact that PC can help them do tasks they would have done it manually before. Functionality, is the key world for this era. ‘GUI’ is not in any nerd’s dictionary just yet.
2. GUI – Skeuomorphism’s first début
Then came the GUI (Graphic User Interface), first developed by Xerox, get applied by Apple to its Macintosh computer, then Microsoft follow suit and released Windows.
A new page on user interface design opened. As enthusiastic as using the command line was to nerds, it’s still more comfortable to see all the graphics. With the great success of Windows operation system, computer for the first time belongs to the rest of us, and GUI helps a lot in making it happen. It makes it possible for the normal people to be able to use a computer. Skeuomorphism is the hero in the time, for a curious yet not quite computer literate average user, being able to see a ‘calculator’ with the shape and function similar to its real world counterpart, people felt more comfortable using it.
Calculator program for Windows 3.1
3. Before iPhone
GUI keeps developing over time, more and more people starts to use computers, more and more designers as well as developers put their efforts into making more useful and beautiful software. Windows as a platform won the PC war and dominated the market. Apple holding their ground with its uniqueness in design and extremely polished and user-friendly products, waiting. A lot of innovations happened at the time with Google leading search and Facebook leading social network. Both of their product featuring a ‘flat’ design and their engineering focused culture. Beautiful design are hard to find, people are like in the dark, waiting for something emerge from the horizon like the first light.
Google’s ‘Flat’ Search Page
4. Post-iPhone Era
Then came the iPhone in 1997. The multi-touch design totally changed the landscape of user interface. ‘Mobile First’ became a lot of companies motto, big or small. This is a wave bigger than PC. Solid hardware performance, big screen with multi-touch UI and state-of-the-art OS put together, iPhone forever changed how people get information, communicate with each other and entertain themselves. Apple’s many years expertise on design and user experience finally get noticed by the main stream. People started to talk about how beautiful Apple’s UI looks, how smooth the interaction feels and how intuitive all though multi-touch gestures are. The prevalence of iOS drive up people’s expectation on user experience. Products can no longer stop at ‘it works’, they need to be ‘it JUST works’, and at the same time ‘looks stunningly beautiful’ to even compete. Good designers became very popular in the job market, most of them doing their dream job. Things just can’t be better for them.
Then like always, things overshot. More designers began to churn out ‘beautiful’, ‘realistic’ designs. Some with deliberations, some don’t. When heavily application of textures, shadows, gradient appears on every website, every mobile apps, every corner of people’s mobile phone screens, people quickly get aesthetic fatigue. All the weakness of skeuomorphism emerged. Too many gradients makes the interface look ‘tacky’, heavy textures competing attention with the content user want to see, design look like a real world object but functions totally differently, all these add to the ‘sin’ of skeuomorphism. Even skeuomorphism itself is not bad, the mis-application of it definitely ruined the day. People starts to pursue a clean, simple, no distraction experience. This is where we are now.
We’ll know better of what future is after we know better of the history. Now we’ve ‘relived’ the entire ‘Skeuomorphism Saga’, I think the answer become quite clear for us. The future will not be all skeuomorphism, or plain out flat design, or anything in between. Those are trends. Trends tend to come and go with new technologies, new business models. But the simple yet timeless design principles will always stay with us. As long as we follow the traditional wisdom of design, adapt it with new context, we’ll always come up with great designs. We’ll experience the same old hard-working, the contemplating, the tough decision-making. We’ll also embrace the joy of creating, the deep satisfaction of knowing we finally get things right.
This is a blessing to our designers. This is a curse to our designers.