iOS 7 - Skeuomorphic & Flat

Ok, that title may sound like link bait but this topic needs just one more opinion. You may have heard about this year’s most polarizing design topic: the shift from “skeuomorphic” to “flat” design in the latest version of iOS. Like many designers, I’m an Apple devotee and like many designers, I have admired recent so-called ‘flat’ interfaces from competitors and was hoping Apple would make a big splash with this version of iOS. I upgraded to the iPhone 5s, from a 4s, and have lived with iOS 7 for a few weeks. I have some thoughts:

Skeuomorphic design is misunderstood. It’s characterized by visual treatments like faux leather and woodgrain but thats only the visual style aspect, at it’s roots skeuomorphism is about creating interfaces that reference real world patterns. A simple example is an icon of an analog clock. Modern devices have no requirement to represent time using this ancient pattern from the physical realm, but because it’s so ubiquitous, it’s the perfect symbol for anything time related. The physical symbol makes the perfect digital symbol.

Over time Apple, and others, took this successful principle and went too far toward replicating realistic visual treatments. Does a calendar app function better when it visually mimics the one that used to be on your desk, replete with paper textures and torn edges? I don’t think so. As a reaction and to differentiate competitors choose a different approach that contrasts this visual style with something called flat design.

Flat design, although often contrasted with skeuomorphic design, is not a its true opposite. Flat design is a reactive style that favors simplicity over embellishment, but it doesn't eliminate references to the physical realm. Instead of using detailed textures and elaborate shadows, it relies on simple graphic elements of color, grid, and typography to convey meaning to the user.

My take is that iOS 7 is both skeuomorphic and flat. The big news was that Apple made a dramatic switch. Yes, the overwrought textures are gone (with a few exceptions) but the untold story is that many realistic symbols remain. The clock icon is still analog. The calendar app still uses the familiar grids established long ago to layout years, months, and weeks. The container where your email goes is still called the inbox. These are skeumorphs of the real world, yet they can be used without the corresponding visual style, as evidenced in iOS 7.

So everyone calm down and find something new to debate. Skeuomorphic and flat design can get along just fine.