Look beyond Flat and Skeuomorphism


A lot has been debated, said and again repeated about Skeuomorphism vs Flat design grammar. Designers at Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have embraced the more flat look and Apple is now (trying) joining in.

I look at it from 2 aspects.

The real definition of Skeuomorphism

For me skeuomorphism was not limited to Apple’s iOS. Think about it. Real meaning of skeuomorphism is to borrow or replicate the real world reference in to the interface even when the functional need for it doesn’t exist. This isn’t limited to visual design only. It also applies to sound and touch. So now think about it. Do we really need to hear the shutter sound while we click photos using our smartphones? or even the page flipping while reading e-books. Let’s accept it skeuomorphism is all around us in different forms and its difficult to even identify it most of the times because it has gone too deep in our habits.

We just need to look through it to see it. For me both the calculators, whether the Apple version or an Android version are skeuomorphed in some way or the other.  Because both are still borrowing the real world calculator design form.

What they do to differentiate themselves is to add a layer of aesthetic that we perceive as Design. No, aesthetic (how something looks) aspect of the interface do not wholly describe the overall design of it. “Design” in its real sense is a descriptor that represents the process, intentions, engagement and execution of an idea. Aesthetics makes up a very small part of that. This thinking discredits the most important considerations we as interaction designers must make in order to create good design.

Aesthetic is also subjective and you will find that everyone has a view about it. Well see it for yourself. You will find at least 5000 blogs talking about this (You can include this one, too).

I am just trying to find an answer for myself and validate my view, which goes beyond this debate.

Design should be about ‘How it works’

Unlike self-expressing fine art, design is meant for a particular task. Design is an answer to a problem. So it’s only objective should be to do so. The interface and the design should facilitate interaction and should not become a part of it.

There are many usability related articles on this topic, discussing both design grammars. Most are in favor of ‘flat’ style. Although, there might be some merit in it, it doesn’t prove that the skeuomorphed designs fail miserably.

My view is simple.

The designer should look beyond these style / grammars and think about the final objective of the design.

While he’s doing that ‘skeuomorphism’, ‘flat’ or for that matter ‘almost flat’ any grammar or a mix of more than one grammar should be looked at as mere tools and not as a trend which needs to be followed. Designing is more than following a trend. It’s about enabling the user to perform the desired task efficiently and effectively, again and again.

The goal of visual design should always be to facilitate usability. Beyond mere functionality though, the presentation layer serves intangible, instinctual, and emotional functions as well. The chosen design style is an aesthetic choice, not a functional choice. It is meant to communicate something deeper about the character of the product.

Consider two houses. One a royal retro looking and the other one, contemporary. They each perform the same function equally well. They both keep us dry, have a place to watch TV with our loved ones, and let us sleep well at night. I prefer the modern one, while others would be more comfortable in the retro one. Both are acceptable solutions, but they are undeniably different in their visual grammar.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating or defending or even damning the ‘skeuomorphism’. My point — is something most debates miss — is that Flat or 3D styles are an aesthetic choice for emotional reasons, not an accessibility choice for functional reasons. When you discuss these two things, you are discussing styles and you are not discussing the design.

There is an interesting quote by none other than Steve Jobs himself in Fortune magazine:

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer… to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.“

Whatever I have seen of the iOS 7, I have noticed more than one place where the ‘flat’ design is forced and that the earlier version was more capable of doing its functional job.

Amol Kadam
Amol Kadam
Amol is one of the co-founders of RBBI agency- For over 20 years, Amol has conceptualised, designed and managed the production of many digital projects for a wide range of clients involving online branding & strategy, usability, information architecture, UX, interaction design, and online & offline interactive media.

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