Design Town Hall: Skeuomorphism vs. Simplicity

Designers are a fun bunch: we’re people-people at heart (our job is to understand exactly how you guys are feeling every moment you’re using our product and how to communicate with you), but design teams are usually among the smallest – it’s common to have just one designer for every 10-15 employees at a tech startup. The design team at Asana is four-strong now (and we’re hiring!), but we’re always looking for ways to hang out, drink, and reminisce with other designers.

sketchnoteDesigners tend to agree on a lot of things (a room full of designers is easily mistaken for a thick-rimmed-stylish-glasses-convention), but one of the big issues that’s come up since the success of iOS is whether the style of using hyper-realistic textures and metaphors (called skeuomorphism) is useful or just overdone and pointless. You can see this inside iBooks (which looks like an actual book), Game Center (which is styled to resemble a casino), and countless other apps made by Apple and others. As counterpoint, more recent interfaces like Microsoft’s Windows 8 have taken the opposite approach – the experience instead focuses on collections of your photos and data instead of visual flourish, and you’re guided by large blocks of color and typography.

So last week Asana hosted a panel discussion with some pretty talented designers to duke it out. Together with DesignerFund, we had panelists Kerem Suer (who has worked with FitBit), Wilson Miner (of Facebook/Rdio fame), Mark Kawano (recently at Apple), Alan Urdan (worked on Windows 8), Naz Hamid (Weightshift), and Stephanie Hornung (from Asana) sit down for a great chat. Susan Lin‘s sketchnote captured the panelists & some of their perspectives especially well.

We were lucky enough to get an overwhelming response, and ended up not being able to fit everyone in our space. For the ones who couldn’t make it, we recorded the event and the full video is included below.

Asana has been known from the beginning as a strong engineering company, but that’s only half the story – we hire engineers who care about design (many were in the audience the other night) and designers who care about shipping products to solve any number of product design challenges every day. I’ve been making it my job recently to hang out with other designers in the area, so we were psyched to be able to hang out with a bunch of awesome product people the other night. Pixelworkers pride!

(Want to say hey? I’m @andrewwatterson on Twitter)

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  • Peter Michaels Allen
    Really cool talk, and lots of interesting examples!

    The only thing I really took issue with:

    Re: the question about Windows 8 and iconography question response… @59:51

    So… I’ll just kinda shoot from the hip on this, but the question and answer are both just… wrong. lol

    The question is meant to understand why the Windows 8 team would use analog icons as means of communicating those ideas in its digital form, which would be counter to the idea of their non-skeuomorphic design direction. My issue there is “iconography” is not the same as “skeuomorphism” – their fundamentally different communication goals. Though skeuomorphism is often reliant on iconography in many cases, but the inverse isn’t necessarily true. Skeuomorphism or not, the use of recognizable icons to communicate ideas is something designers (and non-designers) everywhere use everyday – it’s as a cross-cultural, anthropological reality.

    And the response that essentially boils down to “well, it’s flat” just doesn’t hold water for me, because skeuomorphism is a philosophy and direction the leads to aesthetic decisions and ideas – this probably goes back to a lack of solidified definition around the term to begin with. Just because most designers express the theory with assets that create depth, doesn’t mean that skeuomorphism = depth, and depth = not flat.

    So… interesting food for thought; but let’s keep from throwing too many tomatoes. :)


    — Peter (@3fn)

  • Rodrigo
    The video is not loading for some reason. Tried different browsers, but no luck. Any chance you guys will fix it? I was really interested in watching it.
  • Peter Michaels Allen
    Works fine for me (Safari 6, Mountain Lion).
  • Jason Schmidt
    Holy crap! Skeuomorphism vs. Simplicity?

    These two concepts don’t contradict each other. A book, a magazine, a car, a chair – such physical world objects are referenced by designers in software UIs because they equate simplicity. We understand them from the real world before using the software that mimics them. E.g., we don’t need to spend time interpreting and reading documentation to understand Flipboard’s UI. It is instantly understood as a magazine experience. Anchored in that simple, real-world metaphor, it becomes much easier and more comfortable to navigate Twitter, Facebook and the vast, complex landscape of media sources in one common experience. Eliminate skeuomorphism and the experience becomes abstract, vague and complicated. It certainly makes sense to debate whether a particular UI metaphor is appropriate for a specific app or not, but not to place skeuomorphism at odds with simplicity.

    Just my two cents.

    • Thomas Richter
      Bad post!

      For example: Before you understand Flipboards UI you need to see mommy or daddy flip through a “real world” magazine. And before you can do it like mommy does you even need to learn to read! And how do you find your way through something like Flipboard when there are no real world magazines anymore?

      Actually I think its a dread that there are actual pages in Flipboard. Do you expect a website to flip a pseudo page instead of scrolling? I don’t.

      > Eliminate skeuomorphism and the experience becomes abstract, vague and complicated.<

      Ahem, if something feels abstract, vague or complicated, thats just bad design, not missing "real" world reference? Especially in typography. There are reasons for that, like week or cluttered information hierarchy or using design chrome, or even just using a non working colour scheme?

      The funny thing is, that there is no difference between a magazine and lets say a web page from the typography point of view. The possibilities of the website are much richer though. You dont need to flip a whole page, you can scroll, there is a concept called hyper link, another thing called text search, you can embed moving images, you can adapt to different screen/page formats on the fly and so on and on and on. Why would you even want your reader app to look and work like a physical book?

      And last but not least, what will you do when we all read and work on full motion, full color, fully flexible epaper sheets. Will you still make them look like paper made out of wood to make people find their way through text and images?

      It's just magical conservative marketing backwards thinking that is pro page flip in the digital age. Or do you think its bad that letters became standardized with Gutenberg? Did this kill off the experience of reading?

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  • Kirati
    Good post!
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  • Vince
    Is it possible to get this video up on YouTube?
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  • Nenad
    Really interesting topic and good thesis. I also think about it whole the time: