Why Skeumorphism Can Never Die

January 22, 2013

Simply stated, skeumorphism is the art of making your digital life closely resemble items from your physical life. Examples might include taking a leather texture and setting it as the background of a book cover design or choosing a handwriting font for a to-do list application.

The most famously pro-skeumorphic brand is Apple. One look at the Notes app and you’ll see that each note has a yellow, lined paper background, meant to look like a legal pad. The Calendar app on the Mac has a leather texture and the iOS Podcasts app is designed to look like a full-blown turntable.

So? What’s Wrong with That?

Well, the debate is out right now whether this is a bad thing for the future of the digital experience. Many say that continuing to perpetuate the look of physical objects is keeping the digital experience from being able to properly evolve and move forward. Others claim that designing interfaces to look like their physical counterparts makes the user experience immediately more intuitive.

Personally, I like the look of both skeumorphic design (à la paper backgrounds and handwriting fonts) and the minimalist flat look (akin to Microsoft’s new brand identity).

Regardless of the debate, however, skeumorphism as a concept can ever fully go away.

Why Skeumorphism Won’t Ever Go Away

The prinicple of associating everyday objects with the onscreen counterparts is ingrained in our DNA. From the moment you turn your computer on – Mac, PC, or otherwise – you encounter ojects that have been named according to their physical likeness. Each application you open will present you with a new “window”, named as such because it gives you a glimpse of your application in a small frame, much like a real window.

Moving away from the operating system and into the browser you will immediately encounter a web “page”. Due to the familiarity of printed books pre-internet, each screen you surf to is a new page on the web. Even the collection of these pages for any given URL is a web “site”, derived from the term for a physical locale. Even CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheet.

Simple tasks online have also been labeled following the same pattern. Take for example “scrolling”, which we all know to mean moving the “page” so that you can see more of the content below. Scrolling, however, has itself taken the meaning from unrolling a physical scroll to reveal more writing.

Debate If You Must, But Skeumorphism Is Here to Stay

While the debate will go on about whether designers should continue to perpetuate skeumorphic design, the reality is that it will never truly go away. We’ve already structured our minds to work with these machines we call computers in terms of the world around us.

What do you think? Do you like skeumorphic design? Hate it? Let me know in the comments below!

Wanna chat about this article or any others? Feel free to DM me or mention me on Twitter @marcusdburnette to start a conversation!

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