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The Good, the Bad and the Weird of Skeuomorphism

It feels like a design term that died off somewhere in the mid-2010s, but skeuomorphism is still very much alive today. It exists in the same manner as other popular design concepts, rising and falling in use as fashions and technology keep changing over time. At the time of writing, the idea of making digital versions of tools look and act like their real-life counterparts as closely as possible has settled into something of a middle ground, still hotly debated by UI and UX experts.

For this article, we’ll look at some of the ways skeuomorphism can benefit a product, some of the reasons it disappeared in the first place, and some of the uncanny valley examples where opinion is highly divided.

The Good Examples

Some of the more successful and enduring examples of good skeuomorphic design can be found in gambling apps, especially those that emulate table games like roulette, card games like poker or lottery-style games like bingo. That latter example is the most prevalent, with the vast majority of online bingo sticking as closely as possible to the pen-and-paper version.

The logic behind this is quite clear. Those who play online bingo are fairly likely to have started with the real-life version, so keeping the same layout and functions would help ease the transition between the two for new online players. Then, sites like Paddy Power start to add more complex parts into the mix, such as in-game bonus features or offers like free bingo games with prizes. It means these new concepts are less jarring as the base remains familiar.

The Bad Examples

Anyone into tech close to the mid-noughties may remember that skeuomorphism was declared officially dead as then-market leaders Apple chose to move towards flat design, cutting out much of the realism behind their apps. For the last decade and a half, this view has swung back and forwards, but it is important to know what the original issues were.

In short, making tools look realistic became an issue of style over function, effectively becoming an unnecessary extra, and often a hassle, on some already-cluttered smartphone screens. While some more egregious examples included music players that had to be operated like real stereos or calendars where the page had to be turned over, it also included things like shadows on calculator app buttons to emulate a real device.

The Weird Examples

Where skeuomorphic design sits now is in something of an odd place. While some systems, like that of bingo and gambling mentioned earlier, still make wide use of it, in other cases it has found more balanced usage alongside flat design. The most prominent example is the rise of the smartwatch, ironically including Apple’s own products.

Considering these watches are thought of as top-of-the-line tech, it is curious to note that many users prefer to use a digital display emulating the moving hands of a clock over a military-style option. These aren’t the only examples either, with music software, note apps and many more still opting for that real-life feel.

The fact is that, no matter how advanced the tech gets, users will invariably reach for something familiar in certain cases. We may be finally seeing the balance between the two design choices for the first time.

Image credit: Unsplash