Forget Skeuomorphism: The (Digital) World Is Getting Flatter

Computer interface design is all about metaphors: That's not really a window or a desktop or a menu you're using… it's just a clever approximation of the real-world items sketched out on the screen. One designer's examination of those kinds of conventions in user interfaces on desktops, smartphones and tablets may give us a glimpse into the future look of the devices we use.

The concept of approximating real-world tools and interfaces on the screen is known as skeuomorphism, according to Sacha Greif, a French computer designer who currently resides in Osaka, Japan (which sounds much cooler than, say, a Hoosier living in Indiana).

Greif recently wrote a compelling essay called "Flat Pixels," which explains skeuomorphic design versus the up-and-coming trend of flat design. Greif lays out a great primer explaining what skeuomorphic design actually is, using the example of how many on-screen calculators are designed to look. Usually, just like their physical counterparts, even down the to "C" key in some cases.

Button, Button, Who's Got The Button?

This is a type of design that I have commented on before to my students, only I didn't know until I read Greif's article what this design concept was called. In my case, when I explain the interface of Microsoft Excel or LibreOffice Calc, I describe for them the old spreadsheet books that accountants used to use, and how the modern-day spreadsheet applications mimic that with rows, columns, cells and worksheets.

Skeuomorphic design, by Greif's definition, attempts to mirror the physical functionality of a tool, even replicating physical items or characteristics that are no longer used all that much. Greif mentioned "radio buttons," which is, if you'll pardon the pun, a hot-button for me, because of the blank stares I get from my undergrads when I mention the term in class.

When was the last time anyone even saw an actual radio button? I can't remember my last time using one, though I miss the satisfying "ker-chunk" I'd hear when tuning into WLS-AM as a kid in the car. Yet, even in "modern" interfaces like Office 2010, radio buttons are still all over the place.

Greif highlights elements of skeuomorphic design as opposed to the rising trend of flat design. In flat design, typography and minimalism take center stage over the functionality of real-world objects. Greif cites Windows 8's Metro interface as a strong example of flat design and indeed, he might hopefully find our own design here at ReadWrite somewhere on the flat end of the design spectrum.

Apple's iOS has leaned heavily on skeuomorphism in the past, with added elements of what Greif describes as realism: The stitched-leather effect seen in many Apple-designed iOS apps is a good example of that, though in recent months Apple appears to be backing away from that kind of design approach. 

A very skeuomorphic and realist design. A very skeuomorphic and realist design.

(See also Tim Cook Cleans House At Apple - Scott Forstall Is Out and Will Apple's New Design Approach Kill The Luster Steve Jobs Loved?)

The Interfaces Ahead

Greif takes care not to hold up one type of design over the other, pointing out the pros and cons of each flavor of interface. But he believes that flat design may have an edge in the near future, as it is particularly suited for mobile interfaces, and easier to code - something he believes all designers will have to do more of.

"This is why I've been embracing flat design lately: not just as an aesthetic choice, but as a design exercise that forces me to shore up my weaknesses," Greif concludes.

If other designers feel the same way, then simpler, cleaner designs could be more prevalent in device interfaces moving forward.

Of course, there are other design schools that don't fall neatly into the skeuomorphic or flat schools of thought, so it won't be all about flat. But given the current rebellion against skeuomorphism, I think it's safe to say that interfaces will be moving away from digital-as-physical constructs for the time being.

I, for one, will still miss the ker-chunk.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.