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Skewering Digital Skeuomorphs for Web Design

Animorphs? What-o-morph? Skeuomorph.

It sounds like a made-up word, but a skeuomorph is a design feature copied from a similar artifact in another material, even when it isn’t functionally necessary. Skeuomorphs can be employed for various purposes, such as the click sound cameras made being artificially produced in digital cameras. Other examples include copper cladding on a zinc penny (for familiarity) and wood finish on a plastic product (for a more expensive look). There are physical skeuomorphs (like the copper cladding), and there are digital skeuomorphs (like the click sound on a digital camera). Here are a couple of digital skeuomorphs you may be familiar with:

  • The phone icon on your iPhone
  • “Flipping through pages” on an eReader
  • The sound of files being “thrown into the trash” on your computer dashboard, and the paper “crumpling” sound when you empty the trash out

So yeah, skeuomorphs can be pretty cool and fun. But on a website? We’re not big fans. At least not anymore. It’s true: we, too, once looked at digital skeuomorphs on a website and said, “Whoa! Cool.” But now when we see them, we think, “Oh, come on.” Sure, our culture is on a big retro kick, but gimmicky never lasts. It just makes a quick, final cash-in on a fading trend. And really, how long does the “Whoa! Cool” feeling on a web page last before one desires better functionality?

To understand why we think web design’s future doesn’t incorporate a focus on skeuomorphs, you must understand the nature of a skeuomorph and the evolution of web design as a craft.

People Understand How to Navigate a Web Page Now

Skeuomorphs help people transition into new mediums, and web design isn’t such a new medium anymore. When a new medium arrives in culture, many people are afraid to learn it because they don’t understand it yet. Think back to when the internet became prominent in the American household. People barely knew how to use personal computers, so when it came to navigating a web page, skeuomorphs became extremely useful.

That’s because skeuomorphs help make new, foreign things more comfortable by incorporating familiar visual cues. For instance, the first time you used an internet radio service, you may have been able to locate the volume control by clicking on a graphically designed knob that looked like the one on your car radio. But now, internet users know where volume controls are located on any embedded video or audio streaming device. And, internet users can identify volume controls on a webpage because webpage volume controls have their own look. No one needs to be reminded of old technology on a website. People, now, understand the new technology on its own terms.

People Aren’t So Impressed with Elaborate Web Designs Anymore

Skeuomorphs mainly function as ornamentation and web design is much more than ornamentation. In the past, ornamentation for ornamentation’s sake was cool. And why not? People like aesthetically pleasing stuff, and back when barely anyone knew how to make a website, design a graphic, or simply make any web-based design look good, people wanted to stand out.

That’s because, back then, designers relied on skeuomorphs to make websites look good because they did not yet know how to make one look good without them. But now, web design has been around, been experimented with, and been studied. Web design has become a craft, and the more our culture has begun to hone the growing craft of web design, the better web designers we produce. Many web designers now understand how to make a web page look great without using outdated visual cues – like the old volume knob on an internet radio station. They understand the medium on its own terms. If someone wants to get the “old school” feel of using an AM/FM radio, they wouldn’t look for internet radio in the first place. They’d just find a radio.

Still Not Convinced?

Think about it this way. Wood laminate is a skeuomorph of wood flooring. Both wood flooring and wood laminate serve the same function, right? They are both something to walk on. Wood laminate is made to provide a surface that resembles wood flooring so people feel like they’re navigating on wood flooring when, in fact, they are not. Which is fine with us. Wood laminate will still exist in the flooring industry for years to come.

But the flooring industry and the web design industry are different beasts.

The difference between web design and flooring is that people don’t put written content all over their flooring. Flooring is a design that serves design, and sometimes, comfort. Web design is a design that serves content. Web design is not about what a webpage looks like, but how a webpage’s look makes the content more functional and appealing.

People don’t need skeuomorphs on web pages anymore because, often, they get in the way of building a better functionality based on the medium itself (and not some other old medium). If the medium of web design continues to evolve (and trust us, it will), then it no longer needs the burdens of outdated and nostalgic mediums holding it back.

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