Transitioning Communication from Skeuomorphism to Minimalism

Nick DePasquale
Jan 9, 2019 · 5 min read

Life is full of cause and effect. A movement of one type is like the backward motion of a swingset, prepping and arming the momentum of the opposing motion to take its stride. In design, many mark modernism as one of the great movement, led by designers such as Paul Rand and Jan Tschichold. This, in turn, led to movements such as post-modernism and deconstructivism. And while modernism took shape in the form of capturing the essence of art in order to communicate, things would change in the mid-2000s that would move the world in the other direction of the pendulum swing.

iPod Touch 1st Generation (Amazon.com 2018)

In the early and mid-2000s, Apple was on their climb to becoming one of the most influential brands in America, and soon around the world. During this age of the transition between the physical and virtual world, Apple sought to bridge the gap between what users were familiar with and the technology that they are now using these familiar tools. Enter: skeuomorphism.

Life as we knew it

Skeuomorphism can be defined by “the design concept of making items represented resemble their real-world counterparts.” (Whatis.com, 2018) An example of this can be the side of a car decorated as wood panelling despite not being made of wood. Another example could be an audio compressor plugin designed in the style and layout as a standard, physical compressor. Alternatively, skeuomorphism can be found in all iOS design before iOS 7.

Steve Jobs was known for favoring skeuomorphism over flat design. His opinion on the matter was that “since the iPhone screen had no buttons and no real tactile quality, it would be helpful to suggest to the user what was a button and what wasn’t.” (Dreeves, 2018) The approach to this issue can be seen in the image of the 1st Generation iPod Touch, shown above. Take note of a few key differences when compared to the current day iOS. Deep shadows, gradient glares, and heavy detailing can be found on most every app icon. The notes app is represented by a legal pad, the Youtube app is an image of a dialable tv, and the calculator showcases buttons that appear tactile. The main function of this design mechanism was to convince users of one thing: you can touch it, and it will work.

While some disagreed with the style choice of skeuomorphism, it can be credited as a function-first movement. The transition to the digital age, especially for those who were not born into it, was confusing and non-intuitive. The iPhone was the first major cellphone to hit the market that didn’t have any sort of tactile buttons. Jobs’ design choice enabled users to draw connections to the designs on their screen in order to feel like they could interact with them.

However, this wave did not last forever. In time, the world became familiar with certain interactions with their phones and technologies. Menu buttons could be replaced with a symbol of three lines. Swiping became synonymous with learning more. On the topic, Principal Product Designer Justin Baker says, “[The menu interaction] did not exist in the real world prior to digital interfaces. It was introduced to conserve space in a confined UI and provide a standardized affordance to toggle additional settings or navigation.” (Baker, 2017) As the userbase grew familiar with the functions of their technology, changes were able to be made to introduce a more straightforward design. But most importantly, the death of Steve Jobs in 2011 gave Jony Ive, a vocal opposer of skeuomorphism, design control.

iOS 7 and Onward

In 2013, Ive unveiled his move towards minimalism in iOS 7. Where shadows and gradients once held power were replaced with bright colors and abstract, iconic imagery.

Apple iOS 7 (Prospero 2013)

And while gradients still found their place in the design of iOS 7, the small palette of each design led to a subtly that had never been found in previous iterations of Apple’s iOS.

Since that move in 2013, the world has been taken by storm by minimalism. The focus of User Experience can be attributed to this shift in perspective. Where the question asked in the early 2000s was, “How can we help people understand how this works?”, the question now is, “How can we help people to use this more easily?”

Simplicity has taken form in the modern, visual world. Everywhere, users are bombarded with images, videos, and copy, and are expected to understand and act upon this information. The shift from Skeuomorphism to Minimalism is the focus in helping eliminate the clutter found in the digital world. Developing cues and shortcuts for users is the clearest way to create working relationships between the user and the technology it is they are using.

Developing cues and shortcuts for users is the clearest way to create working relationships between the user and the technology it is they are using.

Skeuomorphism, while it may not align with the style of today, was an important movement in the digital age. It led users to understand that just because an object may not have buttons or knobs, it doesn’t mean we can use it is if it did. But as interactions became familiar skeuomorphism found itself with a few too many details that we no longer needed. And through that, we led ourselves to a movement of optimizing these designs in order to guide users along any specific path. Skeuomorphism to Minimalism, although rivals at the surface, have worked together to build a trajectory for users to truly understand the function of their technology.


References

Baker, J. (2017). Skeuomorphic Design — A controversial UX approach that is making a comeback. [online] Muzli — Design Inspiration. Available at: https://medium.muz.li/skeuomorphic-design-a-controversial-ux-approach-that-is-making-a-comeback-a0b6e93eb4bb [Accessed 11 Dec. 2018].

Dreeves, J. (2018). Logo Design After Modernism. [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/@jdreeves/logo-design-after-modernism-c4f37a0a6a01 [Accessed 11 Dec. 2018].

Prospero, M. (2018). iOS 7. [online] Laptopmag.com. Available at: https://www.laptopmag.com/reviews/software/ios-7# [Accessed 12 Dec. 2018].

WhatIs.com. (2018). What is skeuomorphism? — Definition from WhatIs.com. [online] Available at: https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/skeuomorphism [Accessed 11 Dec. 2018].

Nick DePasquale

Written by

Freelance Designer from NJ. Branding, film, and general design principals. https://njdepasquale.com/

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