Flat vs Real


The word skeuomorph sounds like what aliens do when they shapeshift. Alas, it is not. Actually, skeuomorphism can be loosely defined as the art and craft of making one thing function like or resemble another (usually older, more familiar) thing. Not sure how to use the word exactly but you might say that someone skeuomorphed the hell out of this phone. 


In digital design, no industry has mastered this like the digital music industry. Interfaces for digital instruments are regularly designed to make you drool while offering perfectly clear visual cues that tell you (a) what you're working with and (b) how to use it.

In web and app design terms it often refers to a user interface that is made to look analog.

Several years ago, the trend in web design took a sharp turn in the direction of flat design. It was understandable why. We were really bad at skeuomorphic design.

Really bad.

Shiny buttons, drop shadows, ugly materials. Much of what makes a design interface skeuomorphic is how the elements of the interface react to light. (Again, note the perfect shadowing on our organ above.) But early web skeumorphers didn't give a hoot about lighting continuity–who cares if your various shadows indicate the same light sources as your highlights!?  And who cares if you've got a metal button in one place and a plastic one in another? 

As you can see from the stitched-leathery-button-monstrosity below (top example), it was all getting to be too much. So, as social systems do, we swung the pendulum to the other extreme: flat, boring minimalism (bottom example).

But by going so flat we discarded a lot of important visual cues that help make something usable. Although hokey, the skeumorphic design grabs attention and feels more like a button than the example on the bottom.  It turns out, flat design also puts us at risk of making our interfaces confusing. Note Tom Coates's subtle joke about iOS. 


Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan in her recent article on fastcodesign explains research by Kate Meyer that shows how flat UI can go (and has often gone) terribly wrong.

In her past research on flat design, Meyer closely studied how well young adults could navigate flat sites. She observed something odd: While young people seemed faster at navigating the designs, they also indicated they didn’t really understand the UI intuitively. In fact, for the most part they seemed to have, uh, pretty much no idea what they were doing.

So the pendulum swung a bit back toward skeumorphism, and we got flat shadows and flat highlights (image below). 

What would design look like if the pendulum came to rest in between flat and skeumorphic design? Maybe it wouldn't look like a mashup of these styles, but it would mean the utilization of both, executed well.

With YUDEK, we suspect the best digital design makes use of both flat and skeuomorphic design. The key is to do both well. So we're keeping this in mind. 

We sense that if we design well in both flat and skeuomorphic styles, we can create a profoundly enjoyable and intuitive experience.