Pros and cons of skeumorphism

Skeumorphism is a fancy term which is used to describe interfaces which mimic other objects.

Take this example (image via macstories):

iCal screenshot

The interface of iCal clearly mimics a physical calendar, with its torn pages and stitching.

Benefits of skeumorphism

Even though skeumorphism has only recently become a widely discussed design term, its products have been with us for a very long time. Look no further than the computer desktop, with its file system, folders and trash can.

In the Semantic Turn, Klaus Krippendorf outlines the process a person goes through when presented with a new object or interface.

  1. Working out what it is e.g. if I need a calendar, can I recognise this as a calendar?
  2. Understanding how it works e.g. how is this calendar used to record appointments?
  3. Learning to use it instinctively e.g. does the calendar become such a good tool that I no longer have to think when using it?

Skeumorphism is powerful because it helps with all three of the above. By piggybacking on a user’s existing knowledge of objects and interfaces a designer can achieve good usability faster.

Lets take iCal as an example.

  1. I see iCal and immediately know it’s a calendar.
  2. I understand the gist of how iCal works from having used a paper calendar i.e. I flick between months, and write reminders in each square.
  3. Having progressed through 1 and 2 so quickly, I can internalise the rest of the features and get familiar with the interface/object faster.

Criticism of skeumorphism

I’ve heard a lot of criticism for this approach to design. They can be largely classified as follows:

  1. It’s lazy. Will we be using these well worn references forever? Where’s the room for innovation?
  2. Meaning changes over time. Many people using iCal may never have used a traditional paper calendar.
  3. Analogies can break down. In iCal when moving forward a month the page is ripped off. When moving back a month the page magically reappears.
  4. Not making the most of new media. Computers are more capable than paper calendars, so simply immitating a paper calendar is wasteful.

Striking a balance

People who wholly reject skeumorphism are missing out on a powerful design tool. Beyond the usability advantages outlined above, skeumorphism is also a way of making an interface culturally relevant, and delightful.

I think the best way to think of skeumorphism is as a metaphor. If it makes a poor metaphor then don’t use it. For instance, many web sites have started featuring background images of wooden textures. This is a purely aesthetic decision, and is pretty kitsch.

Like any design tool it’s about using it properly, and after the current fad dies down it will probably be used in a more restrained, intelligent way.