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Friday Debate: Flat Design vs. Skeuomorphism

Flat Design

The release of iOS 7 has spurred a debate in the Solar VPS office: Flat Design or Skeuomorphism? In the age of smartphones and mobile devices, it seems the entire digital community is currently debating the merits of flat design vs. skeuomorphism.

Before we get any further, we need to define both design terms – flat and skeuomorphism.

Definition of Terms

  • Skeuomorphism – Can loosely be defined as the staying on of a past feature even when the current design no longer calls for the element to still exist. A great example of skeuomorphism is the sound of a ringing rotary phone that comes stock in every single smartphone on the market. We know the phone is ringing by vibrations, display and chosen ring tone. There is no need for the rotary ring sound anymore yet, due to skeuomorphism, it exists. If that doesn’t ring true for you (see what we did there?), Wikipedia defines skeuomorphism in two fashions:

  • 1. “A skeuomorph /ˈskjuːəmɔrf/ is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to structures that were necessary in the original.[1] Examples include pottery embellished with imitation rivets reminiscent of similar pots made of metal[2] and a software calendar that imitates the appearance of a binding on a paper desk calendar.”

    2. “A similar alternative definition of skeuomorph is ‘a physical ornament or design on an object made to resemble another material or technique’. This definition is broader in scope, as it can be applied to design elements that still serve the same function as they did in a previous design.”

    The idea behind skeuomorphism is to provide a feeling of nostalgia, comfort or knowing to a new product. To use a person’s love of what they already find comfortable and loving and transfer those feelings of previous association to a new product. From a marketers point of view, you can see why skeuomorphism is very popular.

  • Flat Design – Flat design sits in stark contrast to skeuomorphism. Whereas skeuomorphism aims to bring an element of realism – of real world feel – to design, flat design argues for and deploys simplicity in design. Flat design is the design aesthetic which aims to eliminate gradients, reflections and beveled edges along with providing the user with a more data intensive experience. As noted by the fine folks over at Gizmodo (Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, 5.24.13), “In web design as well, “flat” pages rarely introduce dimensionality, shadows, or textures into the equation, relying instead on parallax scrolling and visual clarity to communicate.” Flat design is an argument for simplicity. It argues that users no longer need beveled edges, shadows and the imitation/nostalgia of real life objects. Flat design aims to simplify through making information and useful data more clear to the user. While Apple has taken up the mantel of Skeuomorphism for the past few decades, Microsoft through their Metro design and more Google, more prominently, through their Google Now application have both carried the torch for minimal flat design.

  • For Google this makes sense. Google is the world’s largest search marketing company. They rely on real time data and data heavy intensive applications to provide accuracte, indexable, useful and searchable results. Google’s shift to flat design, or 95% flat design (some shadowing and Skeuomorphic elements exist) makes sense for their purposes. But does it work for the market as a whole? Is flat design superior to Skeuomorphic design?

    Design Trends Shift

    Overall the question shouldn’t be is flat design better than skeuomorphic design or visa versa, the question should be what is most useful to the market place.

    The downside to skeuomorphism is simple: the more “realistic” a design element becomes, the more overdone and unbearable it becomes. Sometimes skeuommorphism fails in both looks and function. A great example of failure in “realistic” function is the non turning pages of iContacts, even though iContacts is designed to look like a book.

    Flat Design is also not without failures. Whereas the failures of skeuomorphism come in the form of trying to make something too real, the sins of flat design come in trying to make graphics which are too minimal. If flat design reaches a point wherein all elements sit on the same level without separation, the usability of such an interface would be mute.

    On both sides of the coin, issues arises when designers of both elements try to accomplish too much – making design too realistic or making design to minimal. As Aristotle knows, the middle way is the right way.

    And The Winner Is…

    The winner is whatever trend the design market is currently hooked on. Right now, with iOS 7 moving more towards flat design coupled with Google Android devices numbering roughly 750 million worldwide, flat design is where the pendulum is currently swinging. Yet, like anything, flat design will run it’s course and another design element will take hold. Hopefully it will be a nice mixing of both elements, akin to what Google Maps is currently sporting.

    How about you? Do you like flat design or Apple’s recently discarded skeuomorphic design? Do you think the styles should mold or stay separated? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or by tweeting at us at @SolarVPS

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