Skeuominimalism – Intuitive by Design

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If you have taken a look at any trending graphic design blog recently you might have run into some potentially tricky terminology, which in turn might have turned you off from venturing any further into unknown territory. In this post, I will be examining and expanding on one such term, a relatively new one called “Skeuominimalism”, which is essentially a combination of skeuomorphic design and the emerging flat, minimalistic design as seen in Microsoft’s Metro-style user interface.

Microsoft's Metro user interface

Screenshot of Microsoft’s Metro user interface first introduced in Windows 8.

The first question you may have is “Well, first off, what in the world is Skeuomorphic design?” This term describes design which takes its visual cues from a past version or iteration of a particular object. As a result they tend to lean heavily in the direction of realism, with heavy use of gradients, shadows, and textures. A good example of this is the way most calculator apps on smartphones have an identical look and layout to the good ol’ fashioned plastic calculators we all remember using in grade school…sans the annoying and never big enough solar-powered screens of course.

Skeuomorphic calculator app design

Examples of skeuomorphic calculator app designs. While the one on the left appears quite visually flat, its layout still mimics that of a real-life calculator, planting it firmly in the realm of the Skeuomorphs.

While Skeuomorphism and realism aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves and do excel in the area of providing cues and affordances to users, people have a tendency to go overboard with them, overloading the users’ senses with tacky textures and excessive decorum that is simply not necessary. A prime example of such excess is Apple’s abundant use of leather and wood textures in certain apps as well as all of the gradients and shiny, glass-like buttons in earlier versions of their OS X. While it is difficult to deny the visual appeal of realism, things seem to have shifted in the opposite direction in recent years with the emergence of flat design, or “skeuominimalism”.

This design trend, brought into the limelight by Microsoft of all people, resonates with many designers in that it embraces minimalism and puts into practice the famous saying by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. Textures are replaced with bold, flat blocks of colour. Drop shadows, gradients and glows (OH MY!) are replaced with…well they’re not really replaced with anything, they’re just gone, eliminating the visual clutter and excess that has distracted and entranced users for years.

To many this may seem like a cop- out, an excuse for designers to get lazy and work with a “bare-minimum” attitude, but these judgments should be reserved until you actually attempt to design something using this minimalistic approach, or at least talk to someone who has. Easy is something that it is not. Simplicity and stripping an element to its bare bones while maintaining readability, functionality, and the user’s attention and understanding is an art in itself and takes a high degree of discipline, creativity, and practice.

Flat icon design

Completely flat icon design. Clean, pragmatic, simple, but perhaps lacking some depth and visual interest.

Skeuominimalistic icon design

Example of what I’ve been calling “Skeuominimalism” in practice. The design is still quite flat but incorporates the subtle use of shading to provide some depth and interest without creating unnecessary visual clutter.

As you have probably surmised by this point, I’m of the persuasion that flat, minimalistic design is the way to go, but with a few conditions applied that should not be negotiable. One is that usability should never be compromised. Visual style and appeal is something that I have a passion for, but it remains only a means to an end; that end being the user and their experience with what you have designed. Another is that you need to be very sensitive to what the design situation calls for and be equally as flexible. If the project calls for a more realistic approach, don’t simply shake your head and refuse or back out simply because you don’t particularly like that style. Adding in some touches of realism with a minimalistic approach may just be the best of both worlds. Again, it’s all about the user and making sure they are content, comfortable, and perhaps most importantly, willing to hand over their hard-earned cash for what you have created.

Nathan Labrecque

Nathan Labrecque  |  Graphic & Web Designer
Phone: 780.467.5253  |  Fax: 780.416.0021
Suite 14, 2 Athabascan Ave, Sherwood Park, AB T8A 4E3
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