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Skeuomorphic Design: When Hardware Designers Get Soft …

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In recent years, the aesthetic of UIs has followed a dominant ideology that attempts to replicate the physical world. With a handful of software/product updates and new releases in the last few months, we’ve begun to see how it might be time to find a new balance (see Clive Thompson’s article in Wired and Sam Biddle’s on Gizmodo.

As both Thompson’s and Biddle’s articles describe, the philosophy that drives the majority of contemporary UIs is called skeuomorphism. Derived from the Greek words Skeuos, meaning vessel or tool, and morph, meaning shape, a skeuomorph is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, a “derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.” The term can apply to either a physical or digital creation. In other words, it means to replicate the form and material qualities of something that are no longer inherently necessary, all with the objective of making new designs “look comfortably old and familiar,” Nicholas Gessler writes in “Skeuomorphs and Cultural Algorithms.” When applied to UI, the logic here is that it will make the interface more intuitive and usable, as the user will understand how it functions based on their knowledge of the analog object it is replicating.

There is validity to a skeuomorphic approach. To create any good interface, it is essential for the designer to understand the cognitive models that a user brings to any new product. Designers have to take into account the conventions and operational principles of the products and services that the users are familiar with, even if it is simply just to know how to evolve. Clearly a great deal of objects and tools we use could do with the attention of a good designer or design team, but there are also plenty of highly refined design solutions that embody fundamental design principles, conventions, and years of collective refinement that there’s no need to attempt to reinvent the wheel. The e-ink–screened Kindles are examples of how this was done with great success. The products carry over just enough of the fundamentals of editorial design and the conventions of physical books–that took 400 years to evolve–to make it feel appealing to avid readers and comfortable for them to use.

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