Modern interface design is not like a table from IKEA!

I once read an article that compared the shift from Skeuomorphism to Flat design to the move from Renaissance to Neue Sachlichkeit.

As a comparison it made a lot of sense. But I’m not convinced it’s as straight forward as that.

If you’ve read about interface design over the last few years you may have noticed the term “Skeuomorph”, or the demise of Skeuomorphism, being used.

“A skeuomorph /ˈskjuːəmɔrf/ is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues from structures that were necessary in the original.” (Wikipedia).

The example I’ve seen used the most often is a good one. Rivets on jeans. Originally jeans contained rivets to hold together the thick denim. Now, however, we’re better at making them and the rivets are only there so that they still look like jeans. Not purely decorative, but close. The rivets are a skeuomorph.

The first few versions of Apples iOS were very skeuomorph heavy.  The notes app looked like a paper notebook, the eBooks app looked like a bookshelf, the calendar app had leather bound borders. The theory was that people who had never used a touch screen interface before would find comfort in the familiarity of objects and tools they’re used to interacting with in the real world.

But there was also a much simpler reason. They did it because they could. Apple had just released a device with a rich high resolution display. Those awesome looking textures showed off the new screen to it’s full potential and allowed interface designers to show off their skills in creating super rich graphics. When the technology became common place, these graphics eventually lost their charm. It wasn’t long before people were questioning the practicalities of a cluttered looking graphic style in user interface design. There was a call for authenticity in design.

This desire for authentic design isn’t new and it’s certainly not restricted to the realms of user interfaces. In the early 19th century ornamental accesses were widespread. Hand crafted decorative furnishings were once a sign of wealth. However with the rise of increasingly advanced mass production this overly detailed style could be copied at a low cost. They did it because they could. We were flooded with a sea of garish, cheap products. It kick started a design revolution that took almost half a century to prevail. This new modern design was anti-ornamental. It was practical, objective and fresh. It may have started in the 1930s, but in 1996 I remember an advert for Ikea spelling it out in clear terms.

Now a few years in to the “flat design movement” it’s becoming clear that the comparison isn’t quite as straight forward. As a fan of smart and clean graphics, I love the flat design look. Going back to heavy textures would seem ridiculous. I have chucked my digital chintz. But that’s not to say Skeuopmorphic design was wrong. As it turns out, buttons that look like buttons are super practical.

When exisweb.net tested alternatives to the traditional hamburger icon against the word “menu” they discovered that using the word “menu” without a border resulted in a 22.2% drop in conversion rate. Using the word “menu” with a border, so that it looked like a button, resulted in a 12.9% improvement in conversion rate.

It’s not just buttons either. Removing drop shadows, textures and other visual cues has left displaying information with any sort of relationship or hierarchy very difficult.

“Removing texture and depth forced the rest of the visual design to work harder to create meaningful distinctions between the various elements on screen. I think this is a key reason why designing for iOS7 is harder.” (Luke Wroblewski).

Modern interface design, unfortunately, is not a table from Ikea.

Luckily, we’re not the only ones who have noticed. Google’s new “Material Design” guidelines for Android tread the line between authentic design and just enough “real world” graphical hints to provide usability without standing in the way of content. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great move in the right direction.

Putting interface design in to the category of skeuomorphic or flat is to reduce the art and science of interface design down to a graphical style. Unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as that. Skeuomorphic elements are still essential when it comes to usability. And graphical trends, rich textures or flat colours, will always be a style thing.

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