There’s been a lot of talk about flat design vs. skeuomorphic design recently; much of this coming from the upcoming release of iOS7, where Apple -– usually the digital tred-setter, who’s main UI aesthetic over the past decade has been full of skeumorphism, often to a fault — is moving to a flatter look for the new version of their flagship mobile operating system.
Skeumorphism can be understood as “making new stuff look like old stuff”. Or, more precisely, using design and aesthetic cues from previous versions of items on newer versions that are no longer needed, but provide a sense of familiarity & comfort for users. For example, Apple’s iBooks, which is layered in gobs of faux wood grain, or Notes app that looks like — you guessed it — a notebook, complete with torn pages, paper texture, and a default font that resembles hand-written notes (well, sort of). The problem is, as mobile & web users become more savvy, and more familiar with mobile interfaces, these additional design elements become more and more unnecessary, and only serve to clutter an otherwise clean UX.
Skeuomorpism lives outside of web / UI world as well — a great example being rivets on jeans. Rivets are no longer integral to jeans — they’re a hold-over from when stitching alone couldn’t hold the rigid denim together, but they’ve remained a constant in jean design because, well, jeans would just look weird without them. We expect them to be there, even though they’re no longer necessary. See? Skeuomorphism isn’t all bad.
On the other side of the coin, “Flat” design, serves the opposite purpose: it celebrates the flatness of screens, where user interfaces live, and is designed to communicate with as little clutter & detail as possible. It relies on simpler forms & shapes, flatter (and often brighter) color schemes, and emphasizes usability & function over comfort & familiarity. Freed from the constraints of making things imitate real-world objects, flat designers can simplify & streamline objects & interfaces into their core function and purpose, often resulting in cleaner, and easier-to-use, experiences.
As with any new release from Apple, there’s been much said, mostly negative, about the new look of iOS7, and a lot of not-so-subtle accusations of Apple playing catch-up in terms of design: a position they rarely find themselves in. “It looks so much like Android” isn’t a direct quote, but has been said so many times that I’m confident to put it in quotes. “Skeuomorphism is dead” is another one that’s not really a quote, but seems to be the rallying cry of designers the world over.
To be fair: Windows really set the tone here. Their rollout of Windows 8 / Windows Mobile, with their “Metro” design scheme, went full-on with flat. It was a bold move, and placed them ahead of the pack in terms of setting trends, rather than following. And Android, using Google’s design aesthetic, has been evolving into flat design over the past several years.
So, flat design “wins”, right? It’s clearly the better choice, and skeuomorphism is for chumps: fellas, am I right? If only it was that simple. Trends are definitely moving towards flat, and I applaud Apple for putting their egos aside, catching up with everyone else and embracing a flatter design aesthetic: the garish wood grains and obnoxious green felt textures that were permeating iOS6 and below were really getting out of hand, feeling dated & clunky, and had been taken well beyond their logical conclusion. But to say the completely flat, texture-less, detail free design is the only way to go is as short-sided as cramming designs with unnecessary textures & details.
As of this posting, we still live in a physical world, and still interact with physical objects. We tend to be nostalgic creatures, who are set in our ways and rely on habits & patterns to navigate our daily lives. Until our brains our plugged directly into the Matrix, I believe there will always be a human need to make things feel familiar, comfortable, approachable and (*gasp*) human.
I’m glad to see websites & interfaces moving towards a cleaner, flatter aesthetic. It’s a reflection on our current status as tech-savvy individuals, respects users enough to say “hey, we’re not going to hold your hand here: you know this is a button” and ultimately allows designers to provide clean, clutter-free experiences that are functional & goal-driven. But one thing that flat design sometimes lacks is personality: when everything is flattened out, and simplified to it’s base-level, you sometimes loose things like personality, character, and soul.
Ultimately, these are trends: neither of which is particularly new. Embracing one and completely denouncing another may be timely, but will ultimately date your work. I think Apple’s new iOS does a good job of flattening & cleaning house, but retains some small cues here and there that add some personality to the interface. Metro, while a bold & well timed move by Microsoft, may have doubled-down on flat to the point of disorienting users: Metro’s usability has been getting lukewarm reviews at best.
Trends come and go, and they often are rooted in cultural & real-world cues. The move towards flat is a direct reaction to the bloated interfaces & chrome of the past 5-10 years. The more things flatten out, over the years, the more tired of “flat design” I think we’re all going to become, and we’ll long for the days when our websites were filled with familiar cues of highlighted buttons and wood grain textures.
On second thought, maybe not.
Images courtesy Shout! Factory/Saban Brands, FastCo Design, Digital Trends