Defining skeuomorphism and why the debate matters

Defining skeuomorphism and why the debate matters

I love it when great debates spark great opinion pieces -- I already know what I think, I want to find out what everyone else thinks! -- and when great designers like Louie Mantia and Dave Wiskus put font to screen to express their views on important topics like trends in iOS app design, I'm going to pay attention.

Mantia, for his part, is tired of people confusing and conflating skeuomorphism. From Mantia.me:

Skeuomorphism is a word that everyone disagrees on what it means (or suggests it means all of the above), but is often used to discriminate apps that use realistic textures for the sake of joy, beauty, and delight. When you’re talking about an app that uses realistic textures, call that “theming” or “skinning” because before last year, that’s what we called it, and that’s what it is.

Wiskus is tired of people complaining about the conversation itself. From Better Elevation:

This is a rare moment in any industry, and we should be savoring our opportunity to make such a significant impact. Wherever you sit on the issue, you should be passionate, you should have strong opinions, and you should want to participate—or at least follow along and consider the arguments. Because if you don’t care, why are you doing this job? If a conversation about design is enough to make you complain, is this even a career you enjoy?

Both pieces are fraught with awesome. Read them. And if you haven't already, listen to both Mantia and Wiskus discussing just these very issues on the lastest episode of Iterate.

Source: Mantia.me, Better Elevation

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, ZEN and TECH, MacBreak Weekly. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter, App.net, Google+.

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There are 5 comments. Add yours.

SockRolid says:

I think Wikipedia got it half-right:

"A skeuomorph is a physical ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques. Examples include pottery embellished with imitation rivets reminiscent of similar pots made of metal, or a software calendar application which displays the days organised on animated month pages in imitation of a paper desk calendar."

I agree with the software calendar example. But not with the imitation rivets example. Because the software calendar doesn't just look like a physical paper calendar. It also works like one in a crucial way (the page turning animation.) Removing the page-turn animation also removes a large portion of its analogy to the physical paper calendar.

The rivets only serve as decoration, as style. Removing them has no effect on the function of the pottery, assuming it's not just an art piece.

I think the skeuomorphism, in the context of software design, requires the skeuomorphic software object to work like its physical analog. For example a push button that looks like it's "down" after the user taps a touchscreen. Or a knob that looks like it's clicking to different detents when the user makes a circular gesture on a touchscreen. Or a compass (like the Compass app in iOS) that looks nearly photorealistic and behaves like a physical compass.

But I don't think skeuomorphism requires any "realistic" textures. There are plenty of buttons and controls in apps that have no physical counterpart. Plenty of iOS controls that aren't copying any existing physical device's buttons. Their design makes their function easier to discover, because we've all used pushbuttons, switches, and knobs in the physical world.

So, I'd like to think that skeuomorphism only has to indicate what a control does, through familiarity. It doesn't have to be a photorealistic copy of a physical control.

On the other hand, brushed metal or leather textures are just graphics. Decoration, not skeuomorphism. Style, not design. Of course, there's a lot to be said for style.

ehutchins says:

My favorite response is from those who hate skeuomorphism and say we should just use the OSX brushed aluminum instead. Gives me the giggles. ;)

scatteredthings says:

It shouldn't make you giggle given that brushed aluminium is a texture and not skeuomorphism. Also ironic that Rene is linking to these articles given his repeated conflation of the two! He does seem to be learning though, as his most egregious article (http://www.imore.com/no-more-skeuomorphs) has had its original headline changed from 'Imagining a skeuomorphic free, all-aluminium iOS 7' to 'Imagining an all-aluminium iOS 7', presumably because so many people pointed out that he wasn't removing skeuomorphic elements, simply re-theming them. Though I note the URL still reflects his original mistake.

davidahn says:

I believe it's overly simplistic to say skeuomorphism is no longer necessary. I agree that most savvy tech users are over it (and may not even be familiar with the analog versions), I believe many older digital holdouts still need it to reduce technology anxiety. In certain vertical markets there may be considerably higher concentrations of technophobes, for example, in EMR/EHRs.

That said, many apps' functionality and efficiency are hampered by recreating digital versions of paper documents, missing out on powerful input and processing capabilities that technology enables.