Design Purity & Skeuomorphism

If you work any design related field, you know what skeuomorphism is, largely because the media has made such a hoopla as Apple and Microsoft have largely abandoned it.

For the uninitiated, skeuomorphism is the contextual design style that helps people make sense of a new concept by basing it on a context that they already know. Or in layman’s terms, it makes things in the digital world look like things in the real world. Even thought they’re apps or digital files, they’re shown with shadow and dimension. Examples used to be everywhere. Application icons that looked like a pad of paper notes, a leather wire-bound folio to represent a calendar application, or a wood grained Newsstand with angled shelves to display your digital magazines.

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When we started our transition to the digital world, we needed these visual clues to help us understand what a product or application might do for us by making it feel familiar and approachable.

But now, the transition to the digital world is largely complete. Think about it. Our world is based in the cloud, where all of our documents and files are stored and synced, which in turn, enables us to have a unified experience across all of our computing devices. Things that used to be complex now work in the background for us. And our experience in the digital world with products and services is much richer.

At the same time, computing has been liberated from the desktop. Our digital lives are increasingly mobile, carried out on smartphones and tablets. Our children, in fact, may never experience printed daily newspapers, use yellow paper legal pads or reference a wire-bound appointment calendar.

As a result, our visual and design language has changed abruptly.

Trend-setting companies are rapidly peeling the layers of skeuomorphism and 20th-century design styles away, leaving just the barest of essentials. Gone are the suggestions of dimension, depth and shadow. In its place is something more modern and pure — solid color, clean forms, and messaging that transcends technology to speak in a new language of benefits and emotions.

Everything now is uncluttered and intuitive. Consider Apple’s Newsstand in iOS X.

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Even Google is following this trend, using a reductive, front-facing and flat approach to iconography and branding. Shadows, if used, are straight and hard.

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Now consider the Start screen for Microsoft Windows 8.1, which is part of their new text- and tile-based Metro design language, and seeks to unify Microsoft’s user experiences across desktops, tablets and mobile devices.

windows-8-metro

This trend toward a new purity and clarity is equally evident in Microsoft’s new brand color palette. Gone are the conservative and stale corporate colors. In their place is bold color that flat, bright and positive. This is the new modernism.

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Apple, as is often the case, has been a significant driver of this new design priority, focusing on what is most pure and essential. Their retail experiences — of architecture and interior design — are a testament to this purer, cleaner and more inspiring customer experience. These aren’t stores; they are modern shrines — places where people go to be inspired.

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Product design has been similarly influenced. Steve Jobs was famous for obsessing over how things felt in your hand, just as much as how things worked. As a case in point, consider the most common of computer peripherals — the Magic Mouse. Even with multi-touch and Bluetooth wireless technology built in, the product design is amazingly elegant. On a larger scale, it looks like a work of art.

Similarly, the Apple iOS 7 user experience demonstrates this new design priority. Nowhere does it feel bloated with functionality and features. On the contrary, the purity of the design is energetic and positive. Software and hardware designs have been seamlessly married. In this case, less is truly more.

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This is changing the design of everything — software, hardware, advertising, websites, architecture, graphic design, typography, cinema, and so on.

It’s an exciting and welcomed transition.

Mark
By Mark Abrials CMO + Creative Director Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter