The Death of Skeuomorphism?

Skeuomorphism has become something of a buzz-word in the design world in the past year. If we take a look at Google Trends' account of global searches for the word "skeuomorphism" in 2013, we see two main spikes, the first coinciding with the announcing of iOS 7 (circa June 2013) and the second with the release of iOS 7 (September 2013).

Before I dive into my argument, we should discuss some preliminaries. Skeuomorphism is a term that has been in use at least since the 1890's in the field of material science. The meaning of "skeuomorphic design" is a design that emulates older design cues (ie. materials, textures, layouts) that were used in an older, related machine. Regarding mobile design, skeuomorphic elements are commonly seen in many note-taking apps that use the layouts and leather-bound materials of physical note-taking books.

Some background history pertaining to Apple's use skeuomorphic design is also necessary in our understanding of recent events: In the beginning there was Steve Jobs. During his time at Apple, he was a hardcore advocater of using references to older materials and devices as a metaphor for the apps (or programs) that were shipped with Apple's devices. Sometimes he would spend hours going through different pictures of leather to find the "right" feel they needed to emulate for a certain header of a certain app. It was not uncommon for Jobs to work Apple's designers overtime to find the proper shapes that would represent the physical devices that were metaphors for their digital counterparts (think folders, sound-recorders, video cameras). His right-hand man when it came to promoting skeuomorphism in Apples' design was Scott Forstall, who was fired a year after Steve Jobs passed away. With Jobs and Forstall gone, Apple's design team moved in a direction completely away from the traditional Apple design as was evident with the release of iOS 7.

iOS 7 placed more emphasis on simple, minimal-based design and more modern material usage in the apps. This event lead many to declare the death of skeuomorphic design and the era of flat design (which started with Windows 8-but that's a different story). In fact, skeuomorphism is not dead. Although the current generation is growing increasingly unaware and unfamiliar with the metaphors being used for apps, the use of symbols derived from older technologies are so commonly and universally understood that changing them for the sake of changing them would be counter productive. Imagine opening a video app and seeing that the “Play” and “Pause” buttons are not the familiar traingle and double line, instead they have been changed for the sake of not adhering to skeuomorphic design. Your experience with such a device will undoubtedly be a confused and frustrating one.

This leads me to my conclusion and that is that skeuomorphic design is not dead and perhaps never will be. Designers are merely evolving the way they interpret “skeuomorphic design”.