I've said it many times over the last few years. But today with even more certainty, I'll say it again: skeuomorphism is coming back.
For the reader who isn't deep into the design industry’s nonsensical terms, a quick summary:
Skeuomorphism is a term used in UI design to describe interface objects that mimic their real-world counterparts, complete with hyperrealistic shading and depth. A well-known example is the recycling bin icon used for discarding files.
The antithesis of skeuomorphism is “flat design,” which has reigned for the last few years. It’s exactly what it seems: Minimalistic, one-dimensional flat shapes meant to be clean and simple.
Both skeuomorphism and flat design have been the center of many heated arguments within the digital design community. If you're not part of this exclusive club, you have to understand that the noise is coming largely from a small group of people with firmly held religious design beliefs. According to them, there is only *one* way to design something. And you'll find those people on both sides of the argument.
But why do I believe skeuomorphism is coming back?
It's how trend circles work
We're humans and we get bored easily. Seeing one thing too long, we want the other back again. Look at fashion: Ripped jeans are in high demand one year and out of style the next. Our trends and taste constantly change, but they move in a circle. This is true for digital design, for fashion, architecture and even food.
Digital design is still young, but we’re starting to see the trends repeating themselves. The internet started out mostly flat. That was due to the technical limitations of computers at the time, and limited capability for imagination. The bare essentials were designed by engineers out of necessity, not because they had a grand visual vision.
Everything was new, so we needed an easy way to assign meaning and help people navigate this unfamiliar territory. And Skeuomorphism was born.
First, we borrowed symbolism from the real world to explain virtual actions. Deleting something meant adding it to the trash bin. Saving something meant clicking on the little floppy disc. To take a note, I click on the icon that looks like an analog notepad.
From there, we started getting more creative. We went to painstaking lengths to make those symbols and the surrounding UI appear “real.” Digital artists took pride in using textures and lightning to create some of the most inspiring icons and UIs I've ever seen. What followed was leather-bound note-taking apps and calendars apps that simulated a ripped paper effect when you canceled an event.
The UI felt busy, yes. But it also felt warm, friendly, human. We simply had more pixels to attach our emotions to. As you flicked through the carefully crafted paper turn animations in apps like Paper from 53, you felt creatively stirred. The UI was more than just how it works, it was how it made you feel.
But then, everything changed.
A shift in trends usually happens for two reasons:
We become tired of what we’ve been doing. We start looking for something that feels fresh and new. Multiple movements compete for attention, and eventually a new style creeps in and becomes the norm.
A more influential body makes the decision for us. Most designers are not trendsetters, they're followers. So if Apple or another influential platform decides *this* is the new style going forward, most of us will just follow.
Flat design took over as we became increasingly bored and overwhelmed by the hyper-realistic skeuomorphic world we’d locked ourselves into.
That and, flat design is *much* easier to get into. The hard skills you needed to enter the world of skeuomorphism were high. Flat design required less effort and way fewer software skills, both for designers and engineers. It was the beginning of "The UX designer who doesn't design” era.
Flat design also made more sense. A couple decades into "the internet," we didn’t need skeuomorphic symbolism to help us understand how software works. It simply wasn't necessary anymore. As we optimized our software, we also optimized our way of working with it. We streamlined our workflow, got rid of the clutter and continued to simplify.
For Apple, flat design was a way to enforce simple rules throughout their ecosystem. Apple loves to keep things consistent. Every design decision a developer makes with their app reflects either positively or negatively on the overall experience of the iPhone. It is in Apple's interest to make every app look and work as closely as their own, both from a visual and a UX perspective. If this is a good or bad thing for the diversity of design, I'll let you be the judge of that.
Flat design served as some sort of reset for Apple and their platform. What was once a colorful and messy garden of glossy icons and textures, a playground of user interactions, became a clean, streamlined system.
Fast forward a couple of years, to today.
We've learned and we've grown. Even our grandmothers know how to use an iPad. We've established standardized frameworks and default interactions. We've optimized our systems so much, we can build an app over a weekend.
But something is missing in these modern UIs. They're clean. They're streamlined. They're optimized for productivity and speed. But they’ve lost their soul. Our apps and interfaces have all started look the same and feel the same. Even the icons blend together on our screens. People feed off visual stimuli, and the visual world online has become less and less stimulating with each year. And so we’re gravitating toward something new.
Today we're slowly moving toward skeuomorphism again because it gives us that emotional feeling we're longing for. As Diana Vreeland said beautifully: "The eye has to travel.” Babies love to play with visual, vibrant objects because it fully engages their brains. Grown-ups aren't much different.
Today we're looking for a stronger, emotional connection with our software again. After all, we're sitting in front of a screen almost our entire day. If it's not fun, what's the point?
Skeuomorphism shouldn't be treated as a religion. It's simply a tool in a box full of many more. Tools we employ to create digital experiences that people LOVE to use. And if that means picking one over the other, why not? There's a function in beauty, and skeuomorphism is just a part of this function.
Looking at what Apple presented yesterday at WWDC (for reference, the year is 2020) we can see that even Apple is finding its way back to where it came from. Is it good? We don't know yet, but it's a start of something new. The momentum is there.
And I’ll see you again in a couple years, to repeat this cycle all over again.