Design talk: skeuomorphism and flat design - 5 Nov 2013

If you take an interest in technology news and regularly browse the consumer gadget websites, you’ll no doubt have noticed that Microsoft has had a lot of bad press in recent years. Its Windows operating system is definitely not fashionable any more, and Microsoft’s late arrival to the smartphone and tablet markets has left it struggling to catch up with the likes of Google and Apple as traditional PC sales continue to slump. If you own a smartphone then the chances are it’s an Android device or an iPhone, both rivals to Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system. Microsoft is now most often portrayed as the underdog who let consumer world domination slip through its fingers as PC sales have declined. Most recently the technology giant has been criticised for the fiasco surrounding the removal of the Start button in Windows 8 and the subsequent backtracking and button replacement in the Windows 8.1 update.

But from a designer’s point of view, Microsoft has actually been a trailblazing trendsetter in some respects, being the first of the major OS platforms to pioneer ‘flat’ design with what started as their Metro interface design that eventually manifested as Windows 8 – long before the likes of Apple showed any sign of catching up with contemporary design trends. The screenshot here shows the monotone icons and plain, flat rectangles of colour introduced in Windows 8.

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The current preference amongst much of the design community is the tendency to design ‘flat’ interfaces, free from the imitation shadows and 3D effects that were so fashionable just a few years ago in the web design world. The favoured trend is now minimal, clear, clutter-free screen interfaces that don’t carry unnecessary textures and frills. At odds with this is ‘skeuomorphic’ design, which copies real-life objects and textures to create screen interfaces that imitate the physical world.

The mention of skeuomorphic design now often invokes derision amongst designers who see it as unnecessary and distracting. One of the most highly-held ideals of the digital designer is to construct a user experience that allows the website or app content to be most easily digested and interacted with, and skeuomorphism is often seen to conflict with this: an interface should not interfere with or distract from content.

Design trends change often, and there may well be a future return of more skeuomorphic design one day, but the emergence of flat design is a result not just of design taste: technological demands have also played a part. As desktop use declines and more and more people are using mobile devices, the emphasis on bandwidth and file size has become an increasingly important factor for digital designers to consider. An important part of user experience, along with the visual design itself, is the emotion associated with page and app loading times. Flatter design, which can often be achieved using code rather than more ‘expensive’ picture files, can mean that a user can browse a website or download an app more quickly. Website and app users hate waiting around, and a speedy website can make all the difference in terms of customer conversion rates. Maybe this will be less of an issue in the future when cellular internet speeds have improved, but that day hasn’t yet arrived.

Most designers would probably agree that some skeuomorphism isn’t a bad thing: the imitation paper envelope will probably remain the most popular icon for email for years to come. Everyone recognises the recycle bin or trashcan icon. But in many places the floppy disc icon still represents the Save function, when many young users likely have never seen a real floppy disc in their lives.

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Apple, the technology company that has long been loved by the design and creative industries, was until recently the biggest culprit of skeuomorphic crimes against design principles. The Calendar application found in both desktop OSX and mobile iOS has long sported imitation leather and stitching. The Game Center in iOS was home to faux green felt fabric and fake wood complete with grain effect. This picture compares the iPhone Notes app in iOS6, complete with imitation hand-written typeface and lined jotter paper styling, with the Notes app in iOS7, which is much cleaner and does not imitate a real-life notepad.

It wasn’t until the release of iOS7 this Autumn that Apple finally dropped the skeuomorphic textures that had been a part of iOS since the very beginning – a long time, relatively speaking, since rival Microsoft adopted the flat style.

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