The Case for Skeuomorphic Content

Over the last few months, a debate has raged over skeuomorphism vs. “flat design.” I won’t rehash the terms or the arguments here, but you can get a good idea from these two posts from Daring Fireball and LayerVault.

But nobody’s talking about the content.

Most of it revolves around Apple and the growing backlash to their skeuomorphic visual styling. There’s been much handwringing about the “calendars with faux leather-stitching, bookshelves with wood veneers, fake glass and paper and brushed chrome.”

But does anyone care that we still call it a “bookshelf”? And if we call it a “bookshelf,” should it in fact look like one? If you’re going to call it a “notepad,” why not make it look like a legal pad?

In a sense, these skeuomorphic designs are direct descendants of skeuomorphic naming conventions. PC’s had a notepad long before they had the ability to make it really look like one. We grew up drawing with a program called “Paint,” and MS Word let us type directly on a mockup of a sheet of loose paper.

LayerVault, at the forefront of the “flat design” movement, still has files, eyedroppers, outposts and signposts.

Is that bad? No. Is it skeuomorphic? Kind of.

Skeuomorphic content helps provide context

Okay, I realize there’s a difference between calling it a “bookshelf” and giving it a crappy wood veneer. And I’m definitely not defending the corintian leather calendar. And I should have said this earlier–LayerVault is BEAUTIFUL. As is Letterpress and the new Gmail app for the iPhone.

Faux corinthian leather is not necessary to understanding the calendar function. But calling it a “calendar” is. Creating a basic layout that looks like a wall calendar kind of is, too.

So while flat design can beautifully strip away the uncessary. Flat content can strip away the inherent meaning of your product.

The case for skeuomorphic content

I work in ecommerce software, where there’s a really strong correlation with the actions, concepts and processes for a traditional retail storefront. We’re also designing complicated, technical workflows for software users who are–on the whole–less technically savvy than you and me.

Managing inventory, processing orders and organizing your store are hard to do in the meatspace, and they can be overwhelming in a new piece of software. So the more familiar and relatable we can make things for our customers, the better.

But there’s a line to be drawn. Sure, we talk about “storefronts” and “shopping carts,” but we don’t put products into “isles” or “stockrooms.”

When there’s an easily understood software term or concept that works, I would prefer to use it. But when we can use a term to create a clear mental model for merchants or shoppers, then I’m happy to port it over from the physical retail world.

This is exactly what I believe Allan Grinstein meant when he introduced us to the term “honest design” on the LayerVault blog.

Designing honestly means recognizing that things you can do with screens and input devices can’t be done with physical objects — more importantly that we shouldn’t try copying them… We borrow metaphors from physical objects but we refrain from copying.

And I hear echoes of it as John Gruber describes the beautifully flat design of Letterpress:

What Letterpress rejects is not depth, but depth as mere decoration. The visual ‘raising’ of a tile as you play it is a natural visual cue, a way of emphasizing what it is you’re moving.

The case against skeuomorphic content

Maybe I’m making an unnecessary stretch by calling this type of content “skeuormorphic.” In fact, the definition quoted from George Basalla’s The Evolution of Technology on the skeuomorph Wikipedia entry describes “an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material.”

This type of content serves a purpose in the new material. It provides context for the user. It offers visual cues. It primes users with a clear mental model of what it is they’re supposed to do with that thing. As long as it doesn’t get in the way.

Corinthian leather serves no purpose (though I’d argue it served no real purpose on a physical calendar either).

As simple as possible, but not simpler

In The Lightness of Being, Frank Wilczek quotes a famous piece of advice from Albert Einstein to “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

There’s a fine line between skeuomorphic and cheesy. Between flat and bland. And that’s why I believe this debate has touched such a deep nerve in the design community. It becomes a matter of taste (at least until it’s a matter of data).

Shortly after Grinstein’s post on Flat Design, LayerVault founder Kelly Sutton applied the same philosphy to writing. While discussing of one of my favorite books of all time (William Zinsser’s On Writing Well), Sutton elaborates on their approach to “simplicity and flatness in design as honesty”:

Rule #6: Good design is honest. But interface design shares a similarity with non-fiction writing: At its core, it is meant to be the vessel for something else… Flat Design is no trend. Gloss and ‘lickability’ are the siblings to colloquialisms and weak writing. No emcee upstages the performers. When designing interfaces we must remember that our work is never the story.”

That’s why I like the term “honest” more than “flat”–especially in terms of content. An honest telling can use metaphors and borrowed terminology to help the story along, as long as they don’t get in the way.

If it’s simpler (for the user, not the writer) to call it a “shopping cart” then by all means, let’s call it a shopping cart. But we can leave out the chrome.