Skip to main content

Flat Design vs. Skeuomorphism: UX Perspective on Performance & Aesthetic

At the start of any project, the notion of which style of design to go for should be a major talking point. The style that you choose will have an enormous impact on the overall feel of the finished product and how users interact with it.

Modern design trends tend to fall into two categories—skeuomorphic and flat.

As you can imagine, these are fairly opposing processes, and they result in two very different finished products.

Choosing one or the other will seriously affect how your product reads with your target audience.

So how do you choose?

It’s important to understand the difference between the two, as well as why and when you would use one over the other. They both have their pros and the cons, and both are more appropriate for different circumstances.

What Is A Skeuomorphic Design?

Firstly, let’s take a look at the definitions and the characteristics that define each style. A skeuomorphic design is one that resembles real life.

The term comes from ancient Greek and was originally used to describe things like the dentils used in their designs for buildings to mimic the look of wooden rafters. They emulated the look of wood in their marble designs.

The concept has been around in design ever since.

You can see it in cars that have fake wood cladding their outsides, and in electric kettles that mimic the shape of one that sits on a stove. In the digital world, you can see it in notepad apps for your smartphone that look like real paper and the text mimics that of real handwriting.

A team of designers brainstorming a web application.

How Does A Flat Design Differ?

Flat design is the direct opposite of skeuomorphic design.

It actively moves away from making anything look realistic. This means that you see no drop shadows or beveled edges, no gradients—nothing true to life. The aesthetic is simple, clean and fresh.

This style of designing has been adopted by many software developers because of its simplicity.

At around the time of the release of Windows 8 (2012) and iOS 7 (2013) was when the big shift to this style of design happened in the digital world. The notion of 3D buttons was removed from the operating systems and replaced with flat buttons.

However, it has been around for a lot longer, with utilitarian designers working in Europe around the 1920s bringing it to prominence. The Bauhaus school and Josef Muller-Brockman were the biggest names in the movement at the time.

Why Use Skeuomorphic Designs?

With such a strong shift to flat designs in software taking place over the last decade, it seems almost surprising that skeuomorphic still has a place in the digital world. However, it is still used quite a bit and for very specific reasons. One of the main ways this style of design is used in creating digital versions of real-life technology for training.

If you want to create a simulation of a real-world experience or operation, skeuomorphic design is the best way to go about it. You will create a virtual experience that mimics the real thing so that people training can get as close to reality as possible.

Think about flight simulators and trial technology for surgeries. All of these require as real an experience as possible so that those training will be ready for the actual thing after using the software to train.

When A Flat Design Would Be Better

Flat design has now largely become the norm for all the major operating systems used around the world. This means that people are very comfortable with the concept and the UI. They know what to expect and they know how to interact with the design. There are certain functions in a typical design that people immediately read, like a solid button as the main call to action on a website, email, or mobile app.

This style of design is also much easier to roll out on a large scale because the level of detail is so much lower. Additionally, you can scale it up to bigger and bigger designs, and your users will always know what to expect and how to interact with it.

As the world gets smaller in terms of the real estate, you have for your software (tablets and smartphones are primary devices rather than computer screens now), minimalist design techniques are also preferred by users. Screens are smaller, so in order to get people to focus on the right thing, you need to keep your design as simple as possible.

Problems With Execution Of The Design

Obviously, when it comes to flat design, one of the major drawbacks is that it doesn’t resemble real life.

The learning curve when the concept first hit the digital world was fairly steep and users had serious issues with the first iterations of Windows 8. Of course, we’ve come a long way since then and users are more used to the concept. However, some designs can still be poorly executed.

A major issue that flat design software comes up against regularly is that of distinguishing between clickable and non-clickable elements. There is also a heavy reliance on the use of icons in flat design. The image needs to immediately tell the user if the item is clickable and what the item does. It’s not great if you need to add text to explain what an icon does. Some icons are universal, like the power symbol or the printer, but others are not so much.

One the side of skeuomorphism, the biggest potential downside to this style is that it is highly problematic when executed poorly.

A badly simulated real-world experience will immediately turn a user away from the software and give the product a bad reputation. It is so important to pay careful attention to the weight of the images used so that they load correctly, as well as how realistically the elements in the design interact with each other.

Even just a poorly executed shadow on a character can cause a jarring effect as the user expects things to be true to life.

Summing It Up

In the battle between flat design and skeuomorphism, the winners are the brands that choose the option that suits their product best. Offering the best possible UX is key to success, and knowing how different types and styles of design influence the experience is a secret weapon that the best brands leverage to their advantage.

Leave a comment