Skeuomorphism Isn’t Dead

Skeuomorphic design may have fallen out of fashion, but it’s still a useful way to help users understand a product

Jeffrey Storey
Oct 3, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo Credit: Eugene Cheporov

Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly: Skeuomorphism — aside from being a great 50-cent word — is the use of an object or feature that “retains nonfunctional ornamental design cues (attributes) from structures that were inherent to the original.” The digital product world is full of examples: a folder, shopping cart, phone, button, and so forth.

Note these particular icons are “flat”; this article is less about the UI issues of skeuomorphism and more about its conceptual impact on digital products.

In the early days of the web, many digital products were designed by closely imitating their physical-world equivalents. This approach unnecessarily limited their digital potential; what could have been reimagined products were instead restricted to the largely arbitrary confines of their predigital structures. The possibilities of a “hierarchically structured digital storage container” are limitless; calling it a “folder” inherently orients our cognitive conception of file storage around preexisting physical models.

The design of the “Horseless Carriage” was constrained by the purely conceptual limitations of the old thing it had replaced.

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan described this tendency as the “horseless carriage syndrome.” When cars were first invented, this new thing was literally just as it was named: a carriage without a horse. Steering was via a tiller. The driver sat absolutely forward, in the position of the coachman, ready to guide the absent horses. Narrow, wooden, spoked carriage wheels and suspension were designed for the maximum speed of a horse, not a combustible engine. The top was made of soft material; safety was nonexistent. It took many iterations before the horseless carriage escaped largely conceptual constraints and became an automobile.

Nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than in the digital medium. It took years before a “document” became something that could be edited, viewed, shared, and commented on by multiple people at the same time. (The Google Doc represented a paradigm shift in digital collaboration.) The initial product concept of a document was limited by lingering physical world notions: A document is a concrete thing, owned by one person. That person could make a “copy” and “mail” it to someone else, resulting in versions that would later need to be reconciled and shared again — a very limiting and problematic structure.

Hold on, didn’t flat design fix all this?

In some ways, flat design — which really took off in 2013 with the release of iOS 7 — attempted to address the issue of horseless carriage syndrome, at least aesthetically. Flat design did a wonderful thing: It rid the web of gradients, drop shadows, and other elements of real-world ornamentation and literalism. The result was a cleaner, simpler UI, free of clutter. Very good.

Well-executed, imaginative skeuomorphic designs are making a bit of a comeback in some products, and why shouldn’t they? The world of design is limitless; flat design itself constrains artistic possibilities. Credit: Eugene Cheporov

But flat design wasn’t merely about erasing textured stitching, stainless steel knobs, and line rules on digital paper. (Ironically, this style is making a comeback.) The movement sought to do much more: to remove limiting physical-world form factors, allowing the potential of the digital medium to flourish, unchained by the past.

We can only think of something in a new way when we stop thinking of it in the old way. This is something to keep in mind whenever conceptualizing or releasing a digital product, even today. Our default impulse is always to represent new, potentially revolutionary products with the artifacts and ornaments of their previous form factor. Fight, or at least question, that impulse and the sky is the limit.

When skeuomorphism is useful

Having lectured you on the dangers of skeuomorphism to creativity and invention, I’m now going to turn everything I’ve just said on its head and argue that skeuomorphism is an effective method to succinctly communicate a digital product’s core value proposition.

Yes, product innovation must be free of the restrictive notions embedded in the products that came before. But when it comes to explaining to an audience what a new product is and how it works, physical-world symbolism can be extremely useful as a conceptual starting point.

Apple Card

The Apple Card is a great example of a product relying on skeuomorphic concepts for adoption. The Apple Card markets itself as “a new kind of credit card. Created by Apple, not a bank.” (Never mind that the card is backed by Goldman Sachs, which, last time I checked, is indeed a pretty big bank).

The card offers a number of maybe not revolutionary, but certainly innovative, consumer-friendly features that are enabled by digital technologies: real-time cash back, real-time interest transparency, real-time usage organization and feedback, higher security and encryption, etc. The Apple Card is a step forward in how credit is provided to consumers.

The Apple Card is skeuomorphic.

It is not inherently necessary to represent this product as a “card-like” rectangle with rounded corners. But this shape does communicate something essential: It visually illustrates the closest physical equivalent, allowing the consumer a product starting point to understand its utility. (Note that this product does include an optional physical version, but that only underscores the point.)

In other words, the use of skeuomorphism to introduce the Apple Card as a new product is good. It helps the consumer understand the base value proposition quickly and simply. The rest — the new things that differentiate the card from traditional credit cards, can be introduced incrementally as features.

Once the audience adopts the new product and implicitly understands the new technology it offers, it will no longer be necessary to rely upon skeuomorphism to explain it. Indeed, at that point it might actually become confusing (just as a telephone receiver icon is not a familiar symbol to a native digital user).

Apple Wallet vs. Passbook

Note that the Apple Card doesn’t live in the Passbook, but the Wallet. In 2015, Apple rebranded Passbook to Wallet, essentially conceding a branding failure that again underscores the efficacy of physical-world symbolism. No one understands what a Passbook is. Everyone understands what a Wallet is. The former is less cognitively restrictive in terms of digital possibility, but the latter is familiar and understandable. And people like familiar and understandable.

So there you have it: The Apple “Card” fits into the Apple “Wallet” (digital stitching and faux leather not required). The notion of this card and wallet is a good starting point for the product’s cultural acceptance, understanding, and, most importantly, adoption.

Revolutionary digital products

The greatest digital products — those with the highest potential for revolutionary change in how we do things—require new and exciting ways of thinking and typically do not have physical-world equivalents. They are therefore most vulnerable to issues of product understanding and acceptance; without a skeuomorphic physical-world crutch as a starting point, truly revolutionary digital products have a steep hill to climb. They must explain their value without an equivalent conceptual starting point from the physical world.

Lacking the concrete, revolutionary products tend to rely on abstract physical-world metaphors as a starting point for explaining how they work. Cloud computing and blockchain are good examples.

But do they work?

Honestly, not very well. Nobody gets it. What do you mean, “It’s in the cloud?” Where is this so-called cloud? And what are these things living in it? What in the hell is cloud computing? It is a reasonable question: How do you discuss concepts of virtual servers or cloud-hosted software with someone besides an engineer?

You might not need to.

Adobe Creative Cloud

In releasing Creative Cloud, Adobe focused on the consumer impact of transformational technological change, rather than on the underpinnings of the new technology itself. This value proposition again relied on tried and true skeuomorphic concepts borrowed from the physical world to make the new more palatable and easier to understand. That the product rests on new and innovative technology that few understand is ultimately irrelevant.

Adobe Creative Cloud focused on explaining the value of a new technology to the consumer rather than the new technology itself.

As a consumer, I no longer need to buy Adobe’s software. Instead, I need to subscribe. When I do, the subscription is cheaper than having to upgrade every year to a new version, and now the update is automatic — I always have the latest and greatest.

The result was an extraordinary paradigm shift in Adobe’s business model — a rare example of a successful transition from an old-school licensed software company to a modern cloud-based SaaS company. The widespread adoption of the new product form factor, framed in easy to understand concepts, resulted in a more stable recurring revenue stream in a post-CD-ROM license world — good for the consumer and good for the business. (Funny how those go hand in hand.)

Now someone go find Satoshi Nakamoto and get him to explain blockchain to me.

Modus

Helping designers thrive.

Jeffrey Storey

Written by

Jeffrey Storey is a Product professional interested in tech, business, UX, optimization, analytics, SEO, history, nature, birding, slack-key guitar and soccer.

Modus

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Jeffrey Storey

Written by

Jeffrey Storey is a Product professional interested in tech, business, UX, optimization, analytics, SEO, history, nature, birding, slack-key guitar and soccer.

Modus

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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