Design Concepts: Skeuomorphism vs Flat Design

Designers are divided over which design concept provides a better user experience: skeuomorphism vs. flat design. While the realistic elements associated with skeuomorphism make navigation more intuitive for new users, flat design is trendy, easier to read, and is optimal for mobile devices. 

Do you prefer realistic designs or more abstract compositions? For the last two decades, graphic designers, web designers, and developers have debated which design style — skeuomorphism vs flat design — provides the better user experience. 

Recently, the answer seems to be even more convoluted than ever before. While each style has their own strengths, they both have their shortcomings. 

This article examines how the strengths and weaknesses of these styles have impacted graphic design trends and how they seem to be evolving in 2021. 

Skeuomorphic Designs  

Skeuomorphic designs are graphics that look like real-life objects. To create this look, digital graphic designers use three-dimensional effects, such as gradients, shadows, and highlights to create texture and depth. 

While some designers use this to create realistic icons or logos that mimic real-life materials, others use it to create intuitive interfaces for complex platforms. For example, this app designer mimicked a ‘70s era synthesizer when creating the design for a new app. 

skeuomorphic app example
Source: CargoCollective

Because the platform is so similar to the object itself, it’s easy for users to interact with it on their tablets. 

Benefits of Skeuomorphic Designs: 

Generally, skeuomorphic designs can improve the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) of a platform. For one, skeuomorphic designs are familiar, so people feel confident interacting with the design. They already know how it works, so they don’t need to watch a tutorial or go through any walkthroughs. 

For example, a trash bin on a Mac looks just like a trash can in real life; people inherently know that they can drag and drop files they want to delete into the bin. 

Additionally, three dimensional effects create depth, establish perspective, and contribute to the composition’s visual hierarchy. This helps users know what the most important elements of your design are and how they can navigate the platform. 

This also signifies which elements are interactive. For example, designers make some elements, such as digital buttons, appear raised so users know that they should click on them, but they may use shading to create a sunken-in look for input fields and search tools. 

This is particularly important for web designers and digital marketers who are looking to create engaging and eye-catching call-to-actions.

Skeuomorphic CTA example

Source: Icons8

 The design uses highlighting and shading to create a three-dimensional effect. As a result, it looks just like a button. This would stand out to new viewers on a page and clearly encourage them to click on it.  

Drawbacks of Skeuomorphic Designs:

Until about 2007, skeuomorphism was all the rage, but that quickly shifted, ushering in a new age focused on flat design. 

While skeuomorphic designs may seem like the way to go, features that have too many elements can be overwhelming and visually distracting to users. 

When poorly organized, skeuomorphic designs can frustrate users. For example, iBooks, the iOS app that allows users to download books straight to their phones, featured a bookshelf where users could see what they had saved. 

Skeuomorphic Library App
Source: Tech in Asia

However, this design was not effective because readers couldn’t see the titles. In the image above, can you read all of the titles? On top of that, the shelf itself didn’t add anything to the user experience. Without it, users still would know to click on the book in order to open it. 

Furthermore, skeuomorphic designs have a lot of elements, require a lot of bandwidth and are resource-intensive. This, in turn, slows down loading time and can impact your bounce rate

Flat Designs 

Flat design is a design style that uses two-dimensional elements, minimalist shapes, and simple textures to create an abstract look

Over the last few years, flat designs have become increasingly popular because people are more familiar with devices and platforms — they no longer need to rely on realism to create an intuitive interface. 

In fact, when Apple launched iOS 7 in 2013, they dropped the skeuomorphic effects in favor of a clean, crisp look. Jony Ive, the former Chief Design Officer at Apple at the time, argued that people were comfortable enough with touch screens, they no longer needed real-world representations. 

Instead, they chose to emphasize readability and cleanliness with a flat design. 

Since then, flat designs have been characterised by their use of white space, opaque elements, and limited shadows and animations.

Benefits of Flat Designs: 

Flat designs are trendy because they look sophisticated and convey a sense of modernity. As a result, this design aesthetic is heavily favored by high-tech companies such as Apple and Microsoft. 

These designs are often simple and follow a grid layout, so they’re more responsive and can easily be adapted for different screen sizes. As a result, it’s optimal for mobile devices that have slower internet speeds. 

On top of that, the nonexistence of features such as gradients can lead to a quicker load time, which can prevent battery drainage and increase user engagement.  

Drawbacks of Flat Designs: 

Without three-dimensional effects like shadows, it’s not always clear when a feature is clickable. As a result, users often are unaware of how they can interact with the interface, impacting the user experience. 

In fact, Jakob Nielsen, one of the co-founders of the Nielsen Norman Group, recently argued that flat designs hurt users and companies because they’re unable to differentiate between various UI elements. Instead, skeuomorphic elements are necessary to provide a top-notch user experience. 

To remedy this, many designers opt for semi-skeuomorphic features, like light shading or slight shadows.  For example, Whatagraph’s website primarily uses a flat design. However, on this page, they used shading to highlight animations that show how people can use their product.  

Flat web design example
Source: Whatagraph 

As a result, it looks like it’s a standalone piece of paper or webpage. 

Although flat designs are trendy now, they may not be for long. Some designers consider this style to be boring and unoriginal. As a result, skeuomorphism seems to be making a comeback, but it isn’t as over-the-top dramatic as it was in the mid-2000s. 

In 2020, Apple once again brought back skeuomorphic elements in Big Sur. For example the OS control center uses a heavy shadow for brightness control. 

Some Skeuomorphic Elements Example

Source: Adobe

At the same time, they rely on the rules of flat design to maintain a clean user interface. 

Choose Which Design Concept is Right for Your Style

Over the last two decades, both skeuomorphism and flat designs have gone in and out of style. In that time span, we’ve discovered that both can either enhance or hinder the end user experience

While skeuomorphic designs are often more intuitive and more familiar to users, their complexity can be confusing and they load slowly. 

To combat this, modern designs are flat and lack three-dimensional elements. While these designs may be more mobile-friendly, users often don’t know how to interact with these elements. 

As a result, many graphic design companies are working with web designers to implement characteristics of both design styles and optimize UX. In doing so, they hope to alleviate user frustration and improve their overall experience. 

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