Has skeuomorphic design reached its sell by date?


Time to read: 4 minutes

I'm assuming that most people have no idea what "skeuomorphic" means, so let's start with a definition from Wikipedia:

In more layman's terms (and more appropriate to this context) it's where you take a real life object and replicate it in a virtual / digital environment to signify to the user the intended use or purpose. It can be a great way of bringing familiarity to something that could be more alien to a user - a classic example of this is Apple's iCal and Address Book apps:

Note the authentic torn paper in the top edge, the faux-leather finish, the run-your-finger-along-it stitching. 

The criticism of this approach (and Apple have come under quite a lot of heat for this recently) is that a lot of the items that are imitated in the digital world are themselves out of date or irrelevant - who uses a desktop week planner with tear off pages? Who on earth still carries around a pocket address book? No one really thinks that a Mac is powered by shiny little cogs whirring away do they?!

Beyond that, there's also the argument that to the younger audience growing up immersed in the digital world, physical metaphors could actually be a hindrance as they bear no familiarity to their world outside the computer. Further to that, when a representation of something real fails, it really fails - the lack of authenticity can be glaringly distracting (.net magazine ran a "Big question" piece on this topic - "Are decorative design elements going out of style?").

These are all fair points, so is there an argument for these real world devices appearing in digital format? By modelling themselves on physical, real life objects, they bring an instantly understandable meaning to the user. Whether it's a set of cogs (or "gears" to our American users) or a spanner, people know that means settings / preferences. When you see a padlock on an eCommerce site it denotes a secure SSL certificate that protects your bank card details. A search bar includes a magnifying glass to represent a closer inspection of a site's content. The little red ribbons that we used to have in big encyclopedias' have now become the default icon for a bookmark.

Whilst none of these iconic items are actually used in the virtual world, their strength lies in their iconic reference to ideas that everyone understands. In fact, the whole concept of an icon is based in using a familiar device to help the user instantly understand something otherwise alien to them.

Take this a step further and lets look at the site we built for Beanies:

The primary goals for their website was to get people signed up on the box scheme, bring people into the shop and to "retain the potato dust" that makes the Beanies shop the character that it is. For them, this physical, earthy nature with it's receipts taped to the brown paper bag, were vital tools used to create the familiarity that it's users would recognise and connect the physical with the virtual. To people who aren't actually on computers all day, this stuff helps them feel more at ease. As a result of their site redesign, they received loads of positive comments from customers that they actually felt like they were in the shop itself - mission accomplished.

And of course no one really takes Polaroids anymore, but that's done nothing to halt the popularity of retro-camera effects used in apps such as Instagram that was bought up by Facebook for $1bn.

As always, design considerations come down to context. If the use of physical objects (such as polaroid photos, bookmarks, torn pages etc) add to the site's understandability, if they help the users navigate and connect with the website, then they are of value. At the point where they confuse and distract from the site, they've gone past their best before date and need to be binned.

Do you have any thoughts on this? Have you had enough of fake polaroid photos and overly graphical pages, or do you enjoy the detail and connection you get from these design approaches?
Turn the virtual page and continue the discussion on Branch below :)