Digital Skeuomorphism decoded.

There seems to be an undercurrent of contempt towards Digital Skeuomorphism – the art of taking real world subject material and dragging it kicking & screaming into your current UI design(s) (if you’re an iPad designer mostly).

I’ve personally sat on the fence with regards to this subject as I do see merit in both sides of the argument in terms of those who believe it’s gotten out of hand vs those who swear it’s the right mix to helping people navigate UX complexity.




Here’s what I know.

I know personally that the human mind is much faster at decoding patterns that involve depth and mixed amounts of color (to a degree). I know that while sight is one of our sensory radars working 24/7 it is also one that often scans ahead for known pattern(s) to then decode at sub-millisecond speeds.

I know we often think in terms of analogies when we are trying to convey a message or point. I know designers scour the internet and use a variety of mediums (real life subject matter and other people(s) designs) to help them organize their thoughts / mojo onto a blank canvas.

Finally I know that with design propositions like the monochrome like existence of Metro it has created an area of conflict around like vs dislike in comparison to the rest of the web that opts to ignore these laid out principles by Microsoft design team(s).

Here’s what I think.

I think Apple design community has taken the idea of theming applications to take on a more unrealistic but realistic concepts and apply them to their UI designs are more helpful then hurtful. I say this as it seems to not only work but solves a need – despite the hordes mocking its existence.

I know I have personally gone my entire life without grabbing an envelope, photo, and a paperclip and attached them together – prior – to writing a letter to a friend.

Yet, there is a User Interface out there in the iPad AppStore that is probably using this exact concept to help coach the user that they are in fact writing a digital letter to someone with a visual attachment paper clipped to the fake envelope it will get sent in.


Why is this a bad idea?

For one it’s not realistic and it easily can turn a concept into a fisher price existence quite fast. Secondly it taps into the same ridiculous faux UI existence commonly found in a lot of movies today (you know the ones, where a hacker worms his way into the banks mainframe with lots of 3D visuals to illustrate how he/she is able to overcome complex security protocols).

It’s bad simply for those two reasons.

It’s also good for those two reasons. Let’s face it the more friction and confidence we can build in end-users around attaching real-life analogies or metaphors to a variety of software problems the less they are preoccupied with building large amounts of unnecessary muscle in their ability to decode patterns via spatial cognition.

Here’s who I think is right.

Apple and Microsoft are both on this different voyage of discovery and both are likely to create havoc on the end user base around which is better option of the two – digitally authentic or digitally unauthentic.

It doesn’t matter in the end who wins as given both have created this path it’s fair to say that an average user out there is now going to be tuned into both creative output(s). As such there is no such thing as a virgin user when it comes to these design models.

I would however say out loud that I think when it comes to down cognitive load on the end user around which Application(s) out there that opt for a Metro vs. Apple iPad like solution, the iPad should by rights win that argument.

The reason being is our ability to scan the associated pattern with the faux design model works to the end user favor much the same way it does when you 30sec of a hacker busting their way into the mainframe.

The faux design approach will work for depth engagement but here’s the funny and wonderful thought that I think will fester beyond this post for many.

Ever notice the UI designs in movies opt for a flat “metro” like monochrome existence that at first you go “oh my that’s amazing CG!”. Yet if you then play with it for long period of time their wow factor begins to taper off fast.


I don’t have the answers on either sides here and it’s all based of my own opinion and second-hand research. I can tell you though sex sells, we do judge a book by its cover, and I think what makes the iPad apps appeal too many is simply – attractive bias in full flight.

Before I leave with that last thought, I will say that over time I’ve seen quite a lot of iPad applications use Wood textures throughout their designs. I’d love to explore the phycology of why that reoccurs more as I wonder if it has to do with some primitive design DNA of some sort.


Here’s some research that hints at this space [Click here].

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  • Interesting and always thought provoking, but until Metro gets designers that really get it and experiment with it; we won’t know. Also I think the better path will meld the two styles

  • Very interesting take.

    I don’t understand why you decide that metro doesn’t use real-world allegoris though. Save icon as a diskette is the same object whether or not it’s 3d. Actually, if it’s 3d, i would say it might take too much attention and thwart it to “good looking chrome” than just stick to basic functionality. 

    Myself I could say that I’m simply sick and tired of YET ANOTHER wood texture. It burdens the eye IMO, and does nothing good other than to supply work to yet another graphic designer. (which is always a good idea. keep ’em busy! 😉

  • Well, today you and I may associate a 3.5″ disk as being a well a form of media to persist data. My son is 8 and hasn’t ever seen  a 3.5″ disk, so what does that shape itself hold for him? Its fair one could argue that he now attaches the shape itself to “save” but i’d also argue that there’s no contextual Skeuomorphism attached for him. Its just a pattern so the more frequency in usage the more he will be able to react to this type of matrix reasoning.

    Should we evolve away from this icon and replace it with another that’s more contextual itself, then well what is the shape and how do you apply the above logic to this selection? (interesting, even icons themselves derive from a form of Skeuomorphism so there is this constant push/pull between both sides of the argument).

    I’d not state its 3D it’d argue that you can still retain a 2D approach but takes on more of a 2.5D given there are some faux effects applied (drop shadow etc). 

    I also think its fair to also state that end-users aren’t rushing around with UI being used in at-a-glance form? they are taking time to be more intimate with the shapes you put before them so having a form of pictography/iconography in front of them that they can associate a skeu to is maybe more ideal then a flat pattern (2D metro icons). I don’t have the science to back this up so as I stated I am on fence sitting on this as both sides have a fairly strong case either way.

    Interesting thought as well, the desktop itself derives from a form of Skeuomorphism given it leverages the idea of perspective memory “i’ll put that there as i know where it is and it means something to me”.

    As for Wood? …i have no freaking clue why digital UI brings a wooden form into the equation. It’s like designers picked up hello kitty stickers and put them all over the place and everyone accepts this but you and I are going “wtf is with that cat everywhere?” 🙂

  • Interesting take.  These two opposing (?) forces are currently being demonstrated in extremes in the world of music production environments: Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) and the vast range of VST add-ins that are now available. Ableton Live is the equivalent of Metro’s simple flat 2D surface, and my preferred working environment because of it’s very usable controls. In contrast, many if not most VST add-ins feature photographically faithful representations of real or imagined synthesizers and audio processors.  These are often characterized by knobs that are difficult to manipulate, and difficult to perceive in terms of position (as were their physical originals).  This might be a good thing for producers transitioning from the physical gear, but looks more like product decoration.  And yes, there’s woodgrain. 

    I’m not a good representation of what’s best here – I prefer digital stuff to have an uncluttered and legible UI.  But it’s an interesting and more mature market that might provide some useful indicators.

  • Agreed.

    I have noticed there is a lot of Sound / Audio / Music recording apps etc that use this approach and for those who don’t have a hardware background in that space ..well.. i have no freaking clue what each knob represents when I do dable in it (I’m looking at you FLA Studio).

    Its a very odd existence right now…cool..but odd.

  • This is actually a very good post. I wonder about wood and paper and faux photo albums too. Me and my spouse don’t have a photo album at home, everything is stored digital. We do have some plastic wraps for photography from certain trips. But they don’t look like those wood or leather photo album apps. My kids might never see such an album at home. They might or might not at grandparents..will they have the same feeling of naturally understanding a leather album app?

    So I’m actually with you when you said Apple design targets babyboomers, 50+ people. Coz on the other hand, with teenagers today I don’t think these apps would work..but Instagram works..lacking old school UI but with retro effects..

    all in all, I don’t think that in the coming years for young people faux envelopes will be familiar if they didn’t send a single enveloped letter in their life..

  • Boris

    –”A derivative object that
    retains (ornamental design) cues to a structure that was necessary in the

    This is not a design
    problem- I’d say what we deal with here in the realm of UI design is just a subset
    of the same digital delusion, disconnectedness and disembodiment we see in
    every other aspect of our digital lives – Fake friends, fake communication, fake
    presence and so on. Does this really come to a surprise that we are able to fool
    ourselves in the same way when it comes to UI? It seems to me a form of nostalgia as a rather sad consequence
    of accommodation to the fact that we as haptic sensitive beings sadly evolved to
    prefer “Touching pictures behind glass surfaces” while making ourselves believe
    it enriches the way we perceive and interact with our environment.  Welcome to the

  • Joseph Cooney

    You forgot to link to