Skeuomorphism / Neumorphism UI Trend is a term most often used in graphical user interface design to describe interface objects that mimic their real-world counterparts in how they appear and/or how the user can interact with them. A well-known example is the recycle bin icon used for discarding files. Skeuomorphism makes interface objects familiar to users by using concepts they recognize.
In the beginning, it seemed like a new aesthetic proposal. Original, but only in the design sense. But as the term became viral in specialized sites and communities, it also became a discussion about the neumorphism as a replacement of the flat design trend.
Some of the discussions involve terms like usability, accessibility, adaptability, even biomorphism.
And of course, skeuomorphism.
Let’s start with definitions: neumorphism is a form, new, but form. Skeuomorphism is not just a form, but a container, a vehicle.
The term skeuomorph is compounded from skeuos (σκεῦος), meaning “container or tool”, and morphḗ (μορφή), meaning “shape”—Wikipedia
On silent film, intertitles and interpreters
In the beginnings of cinema (silent film era), every projection was accompanied by music played live, and by an interpreter who explained the film to the public.
Yes, a person explained the silent film during the projection.
The theatrical part—the drama—was perfectly understood by the audience. But not the montage, the sequence of shots that build the plot.
The use of intertitle cards and interpreters were necessary to understand the plot for most of the audience.
Intertitle cards and interpreters were the interfaces between the movie and the audience.
Of course, once the audience learned the language of cinema, the intertitles and interpreters were no longer necessary. The interface became implicit for the people.
In other words, once the audience understood the form, the container or the vehicle was no longer necessary.
Well, not for everyone. My daughters (from three to fourteen years old) understand very complicated movies of TV series that are difficult for my parents (from seventy to eighty years old).
When my eldest daughter explains to my mother an element of the plot hidden in a complex montage of a movie—obvious for the young, inconspicuous for the old one—, my daughter becomes an interface.
What is an interface, anyway?
Design is no longer a print to look at or a furnishing to use. Design is now about interactions and experiences.
That doesn’t mean that we can forget the communication factor of every design. Therefore, language.
Let’s remember a little of Semiotics.
The designer is the sender, the interface is the message, the user is the receiver. The message is coded, composed of ruled signs, a language.
Every interface is some kind of interpreter between a machine and a human, a software program (now called an app) and a user.
In the current apps, we call a button a button because of previous knowledge of what a button is in the physical world, no matter if it looks like a physical button or not.
You can say a digital button is a metaphor for the physical button. Or you can say it’s a metonymy. Anyway, there is a referent and there is a reference.
The interface is a message
When Marshall McLuhan introduced its famous phrase “the medium is the message”, it was considered just a way to call for attention. It was difficult to understand that the cinema itself was a message and not just the content of the movies.
Today, it should be clear that an interface is a medium, therefore, an interface is a message.
For me, the save icon on a button in an app is a metaphor or metonymy of a floppy disk. For my daughter, the icon means directly “save”. And a floppy disk is a physical representation of the “save” icon.
When a designer mimics an object to design another—called a derivative—retaining ornamental attributes in the new one that are no longer functional, the designer is using skeuomorphism: light bulbs were derivatives from candles, automobiles from horse carts, radio receivers from phonographs.
The skeuomorphism can be a resource that works as an interpreter, container or vehicle in the use of transitional objects or forms—although it can be a simple design style, of course.
You can experience and learn to use an app using your previous experience and knowledge using physical objects: volume dial, keyboard, switch button…
But once we learn to use the digital object, the skeuomorphism is no longer necessary. Once we get used to the form, we no longer need the container.
The first apps for the iPhone were very skeuomorphic. Then came the material design, with its minimalism and functionalism.
But the material design style was only possible because we, the users, learned to use digital interfaces without the need of physical references.
Well, not for everyone. Do you remember the language of films?
My daughters (especially the youngest) interact seamlessly with their apps and games on the smartphone or the tablet. Simpler apps are difficult if not impossible for my parents.
For my three-year-old daughter a flat design button is a button. For my father it is a colored rectangle with some text on it.
With a limited verbal vocabulary, my little daughter becomes an interface when she says “touch here, granddad!” pointing to a colored square ot a picture thumb.
(By the way, my dad’s response is “how does she know that?”.)
If you are making a movie for my parents, be gentle with the montage and camera movements, please. If you are designing an app for my parents, you have to use skeuomorphism. It’s not an aesthetic decision.
But if you are making a movie or designing an app for my daughters, you have more aesthetic freedom. Make complex montages, move the camera, use material design.
The use of skeuomorphism can be minimalistic or prodigal. There is no need to go baroque with skeuomorphism. In fact, I think that the real problem with skeuomorphism was not the mimic aspect of it, but the non-minimalistic and non-functional approach of its use in digital design.
The skeuomorphism in UI design will die someday in the future, like the need for intertitle cards and interpreters in the movies.
But not yet. There are personas in the design of user experiences and interfaces that still need a container, a vehicle, an interpreter, to understand the form.