Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Skeuomorphism in Design: Good or Bad?

 Last night I went to a panel called Skeuomorphism vs. Simplicity, hosted by the Designer Fund and Asana (who has an amazing space, by the way. It's got that well-designed, stripped warehouse feel).   If you're interested in watching the video of the panel, you'll be able to check it out on the Asana blog.

My one and only image of the event. Yes it's horrible. Sorry. 
Panelists included: Wilson Miner (Rdio/Facebook), Stephanie Hornung (Asana),
Kerem Suer (previously Fitbit), Naz Hamid (Weightshift),
Mark Kawano (formerly Apple) and Alan Urdan (Windows 8).

A quick definition of skeuomorphism:
A skeuomorph is a design element of a product that imitates design elements functionally necessary in the original product design, but which have become ornamental in the new design.

Prior to the panel, my main thoughts were (1) skeuomorphism is simply just visual adornment (leather texture on the edges of a calendar app, for example) and (2) it's currently being bashed in the design community as something that's useless and gets in the way of content, and I tended to agree. 

Here's the interesting stuff I learned:

1) Skeuomorphs aren't only visual.

There are physical skeuomorphs.  Take these cigarettes for example. The paper is printed with the texture of cork, because that's what cigarettes used to be made of.

There are also audio skeuomorphs. The click of the shutter release when you use a digital camera is essentially an "audio adornment" to provide feedback that something's happened – it's comforting and satisfying.

For skeuomorphs in general, my biggest takeaway was that they're not black and white – either good or bad. There are certain times they are inappropriate and inappropriate. You have to consider their context and the task that the user is trying to accomplish. I think this tweet frames it nicely:

Skeuomorphism is good when it helps the user accomplish something, or intends to evoke an emotional response (e.g. nostalgia, comfort).

Example: Some might say that the iPhone's compass app is overdesigned and overwrought, but it does immediately communicate to the user what the app is for and what it does. It encourages interaction (people know immediately how a compass works, or they should) and it's much more engaging than showing a single number, i.e. the directionality.

Skeuomorphism is not good if it's completely irrelevant, doesn't have a purpose, and obstructs the user from completing their task.

Example: This podcast apps that uses the cassette tape* as a skeuomorph. It's not a successful metaphor as many young people have never even used a cassette tape before (yeah, oh my god, I'm getting old). Though gorgeous visually, the design actually hinders the understanding and interaction with the app.

*By cassette tape, I mean reel-to-reel. Sorry. Generational gap.


  1. " that uses the cassette tape as a skeuomorph" That's not a cassette tape. It's "reel-to-reel", even older technology :-)

    1. Good point! It's nice to feel young once in a while ;)