Skeumorphism, has been a heated topic recently, dividing the mobile design community, with many critics already declaring this methodology utterly outdated, useless bloatware. The technique of taking high-status physical objects, like kettles and analogue knobs and applying them as UI elements, has been a design fixture of Apple, over the past few years, but with the untimely exit of iOS designer Scott Forstall this month, one of Apple’s fiercest skeumorphism evangelists, Apple may also have decided to have a change of philosophy.

Sure, we have seen plenty of examples of apps that have put skeumorphism in the wrong light, and when not done right, it is blatantly clear. Just take a look at Apple’s very own Podcast app, which was heavily bashed upon in the blogosphere, and whilst rightfully criticised, it is also a generalisation to outcast skeumorphism because of the implementation of a few examples.

So the guys at Apple don’t get everything right in design, and the designers tried to project a metaphor of an old-fashioned cassette-tape deck, which in it’s own right is a marvelous piece of animation and design, except it was designed at the expense of functionality. Buttons and targets were difficult to tap on, as well as having a lot of precious screen real-estate dedicated to non-functional aspects of the app.

Not to mention the biggest oversight, many of the younger generation wouldn’t have the faintest what a cassette-tape deck is, let alone floppy disks, so having an unrecognisable metaphor is a waste in a way. Having said that, we believe Skeumorphism is still a valid technique, and we will give you three reasons why.

1. Usability

Skeumorphism presents the benefit of recognition and familiarity, as is inferred in the meaning of the concept, when represented correctly, introduces a familiar object that the user has used in the real-world as a Ui control. Familiarity means encouraging more use, quicker adoption for new users by reducing the intimidation barriers.

Papers by FiftyFree, an innovative drawing and painting app, that like iBooks, has a home screen that is a physical metaphor of a table with notebooks. You choose a notebook, and the book opens up with pages, which allows the user to then flick between pages to navigate one’s portfolio.

To open a page, the user would pinch out horizontally to stretch out the selected set of pages further. The drawing aspect is familiar to the users, in the same way other drawing tools are used, and using your finger is the most intuitive form of skeumorphism.

Essentially, the app does not seem to breach the level of excessiveness found in many poorly-designed apps, by not detracting from functionality, yet employs intuitiveness through familiar objects and actions (such as pinch and flick) to create a highly usable app.

2. Familiarity

Going on from usability, you gain familiarity, and hold and behold, Apple’s iBooks is a prime example of that. For someone who hasn’t used this app before, the application’s home screen presents a bookshelf, with book covers to represent all the books in one’s collection, using a familiar and understandable metaphor of a pine-wood bookshelf to give the user an understanding of what is being shown and to be able to relate to it.

When reading a book, the user is presented with the sepia-paged book, and advancing pages is as intuitive as its real-life metaphor, swipe to flick a page, but also provides the option for users (in the latest iBooks version) to scroll downwards continuously to read, thus providing a more functional but less skeumorphic option.

The reader is also able to annotate the book, by highlighting through dragging one’s finger horizontally over text,  to create a highlighting pen effect.

iBooks therefore proves a good skeumorphic design that aids usability, whilst not providing any skeumorphism that detracts from its’ intended functionality. More so, it provides users with the option to select different usability options.

3. Aesthetical/Nostalgic

OK, so not everything has a functional meaning. As long as it doesn’t hinder, one can appreciate apps that have chosen great and useful aesthetical/nostalgic UI features. Take the switch for example, it not only has a functional and familiarity benefit, but it’s also darn fun to flick left or right.

One can also appreciate the artistically vintage look of an app, and just like modernism, there is a market for vintage art. Granted, it is hard to nail from a designer’s perspective, and there are a lot of hits and misses, but when done right, you get a real appreciation.

The effect you get when you scroll down a tableView in an app, when you reach the end of the list, you get an elastic rebound, that signals a visual reference to the user that the application is at the end of the list.

So to put things straight…

The art is the result of an artist who uses the same canvas and brush as another artist, but how they envision something is the differentiating factor. There are many apps out there that are non-functional, and yes, anyone can skin an app to look like a leather binder, or animate something that interferes with their general usage. The mobile real-estate is very limited, and choosing something that complements the general flow is key.

Skeumorphism may be considered vintage, from a mobile operating system history, but it does not mean it is completely irrelevant. Just like art, or interior decoration, one may appreciate contemporary, modern or antique decorations. Take iBooks as an example of a skeumorphic app that makes using the application easier for many novice users, and provides nostalgic benefits for seasoned users of the application, whilst not detracting too much from functionality.

Looking at companies like Microsoft, which employ a rather contrastingly minimalist approach with Windows 8, across their devices and desktop Operating Systems. Whilst many in the community are stating that their modern approach is the way to go, they must also remember that a minimalist approach to design, whilst providing a clean and clear UX for users, can also be condescending for seasoned users.

That is, an interface that is too minimalist that it abstracts advanced features, such as working in terminal or tweaking advanced system settings can certainly also be annoying. And certainly when you look at competing devices like Android, there are certainly many other aspects that deserve greater attention, than dissecting the merits of skeumorphism, when you have usability, inconsistency and other aspects to bare in mind.


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