Way back when, in the heady days before Microsoft Phone 7 (2010) and Apple iO7 (2012), designers usually made digital things look like real life counterparts, a process known as skeuomorphism. It’s extensive use was, in one sense at least, very logical. Visual design that was necessary (or even fundamental) in a real life object might be just a derivative design cue in the digital equivalent, but those cues made it easy for people to feel at home and to adapt to the new environment. Skeuomorphic design in the digital world can be familiar, the way that a fake wooden panel in a car can be familiar and retain some of the qualities associated with the original.


According to Donald Norman in his book The Psychology of Everyday Things: “…skeurmorphic design is an ‘affordance.’ With the affordance being the design aspect of an object which suggest how the object should be used; a visual clue to its function and use.”


Think of the pre iO7 iPhone screen. That camera app icon is a collection of pixels designed to look like a lens of a camera, but it isn’t made of glass. It could look like anything the designer wanted it to and they chose for it to simulate the aesthetics of the materials used to make an actual camera.


The problem was, in the way that a fake wooden panel in a car can look uninventive and naff precisely because it’s trying to be something it isn’t, digital skeuomorphic design can look pretty uninventive and naff too. It made less sense the more familiar we all became with this new world. We don’t need to see something that looks like a glass lens to tell us the app behind it is the camera. Since we are all used to digital interfaces now, the design can afford to be more abstract and we’d still figure it out.


Flat design had other benefits other than as a mere reaction to skeuomorphic visuals. It almost always had easy to read typography, often led to quicker loading pages and, thanks to the basic grids it usually sat on worked more fluidly with responsive design. There is something crisp and modern about flat design too, partly because removing the elements of design (like textures, shadows, reflections and gradients) that would make us believe something looked ‘real’, designers removed style. The simpler the design, the less likely it would be to age badly. Typography based design and solid colours were the future: even the Google logo had gone flat.


Predictably, this isn’t the end of the story. Skeuomorphism had plenty of problems, but it certainly added personality to design. And conformity to flat design has homogenised large swathes of the digital world, not because form always follows function, but simply because everyone else was doing it. Yes, ease of use should come first, but not at the expense of actual enjoyment on behalf of the user, and total adherence to flat design has stripped that out a little.


Since we’ve already mentioned the Google logo, let’s pick up the story there, because it’s Google who are at the forefront of nearly flat, or almost flat or, in their own terminology: material design.


In material design, as specified by Google: “Surfaces and edges of the material provide visual cues that are grounded in reality. The use of familiar tactile attributes helps users quickly understand affordances. Yet the flexibility of the material creates new affordances that supercede those in the physical world, without breaking the rules of physics.


The fundamentals of light, surface, and movement are key to conveying how objects move, interact, and exist in space and in relation to each other. Realistic lighting shows seams, divides space, and indicates moving parts.”


In other words, cues, shadows and gradients, used subtly and in support of the interface, are OK. They don’t get in the way of modernist form-first principles and actually make for a more pleasurable experience precisely because of the tactile reminders of real materials. They are not doing anything so heavy handed as trying to kid us into thinking our apps are made of leather – but rather that our digital actions have consequences and meaning.


By reintroducing real-world physics, almost flat design helps users to know what to press and where to look, and reminds designers that simplicity doesn’t mean a design can’t be fun or relatable: a balance can and should be sought.


By Oliver Brown