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Are you Skeuomorphic or Flat?

The way that we think about web design is often changing. You might think that a website is a website, but if we showed you some designs from 2013, 2008 and 2003 it would quickly become apparent that things have changed…

You can observe this change across the web design spectrum. The visual changes in the website design are just as evident in conservative sites as radical ones; banks, newspapers and multinationals all respond to changes in web design culture in order to keep their websites as modern and useable as possible.

We tend to be creatures of habit, and significant changes in web design trends tend to require a progressive design to be pioneered by a particular brand or company until it becomes adopted and accepted by others. There are certain brand leaders who have a particular influence on design patterns and trends. When these companies depart with their current methodology, we can therefore speculate as to whether it might cause others to follow suit.

You might not have realised it, and you might not be able to pronounce it, but you’re probably very familiar with skeuomorphic design. It’s been around for a while, but in the past decade, companies like Apple have almost universally adopted this kind of design.

Skeuomorphic design uses traditional/familiar imagery to help familiarise the user. A classic example of this would be an email inbox which is accessed by clicking on an envelope. We know that email doesn’t involve envelopes, but the imagery is familiar.

The idea behind skeuomorphic design is very simple; new technology or design that embraces traditional styles. This is often used to make things which are new feel traditional, familiar and intuitive. If you’re an Apple user and you’ve used Garageband on a Mac or the Notes app on your iPhone then you’ll quickly notice that much of the visual design encompasses more traditional, physical elements.

In other words, skeuomorphic design includes unnecessary visual features that help bring a sense of familiarity.

However, things seem to be changing.

The problem with this way of designing interfaces is that they are prone to taking up space. With many of us using smaller devices, space is a premium. This is having a big impact on both the technology that we use and the web designs that we interact with.

We’re so accustomed to digital technology that it is really no longer necessary to include traditional styling cues. Skeuomorphic design can start to feel dated.

In its place, we’re seeing a big increase in the use of flat design. In many ways, this kind of design – like that featured in Windows 8 products – is really the opposite of Skeuomorphic design. It relies more upon simple shapes and colours. It tends to be more 2-dimensional in feel, and is far more intuitive for touch-screen users. Designers are increasingly comfortable with flat design, trusting that users are no longer confused by more literal design.

It’s rumoured that Apple’s next generation iOS will embrace flat design, following in Microsoft’s footsteps. In the web design world we’re seeing more examples of flat design, with minimalist mobile-first design and clean typography-based sites becoming particularly popular.

We’ll have to wait and see if flat design is here to stay, but it’s certainly making a mark on the design industry…