What Is Skeuomorphism?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn how skeuomorphism fits into user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design as well as the role it has played in the development of digital design.

[Featured image] A UX designer is using their phone to learn about skeuomorphism.

Skeuomorphism is a digital design style that mimics physical objects. In user experience (UX), skeuomorphism pulls design cues from existing objects to invoke real-life experiences for users. This design style aims to simplify the usability of the interface and increase the speed of learning how to use it. 

Skeuomorphic images are similar to design metaphors in that they provide contextual clues by using a known concept or image to help people understand a new product. By tapping into cultural affordances, skeuomorphic design spurs a user to take action by telling them how to interact with a digital object.

Read more: User Experience (UX) Terms: A to Z Glossary

Examples of skeuomorphism

  • Calculator: The calculator app on a smartphone has a layout similar to a desk calculator. The keypad, input line, and mathematical elements are found in familiar places using skeuomorphic design, which gives the user immediate recognition of how to operate it.

  • Camera phone shutter sound: Many cell phone cameras make a shutter sound when a photo is taken to mimic an analog camera. The phone’s camera does not need to make noise to function, but the sound gives the user a recognizable cue to signal the picture has been taken.

  • Desktop trash can: The desktop trash can is a recognizable object that gives users an intuitive indication of how to use it. The design went further with skeuomorphism by allowing users to drag and drop items directly into the trash can just as they would in the physical world. 

In the early days of smartphone releases and desktops, user interface (UI) design gravitated toward skeuomorphism to give users a relatable experience to objects they were already familiar with, such as calculators, notebooks, file folders, and mail. UI design trends eventually moved away from skeuomorphism in favor of the more simplistic style of flat design; however, it is seeing a resurgence with the growing popularity of wearable technology like smartwatches and virtual reality software.

Skeuomorphism vs. flat design: What’s the difference?

Skeuomorphic designs use graphics that look like their real-life counterparts. They use gradients, textures, and shapes to simulate the appearance and function of a physical object. The design will have the same layout as the real-world item and may go as far as adding a drop shadow to a button to mimic depth and to give the illusion that it physically moves when pressed. 

Flat design does the opposite of skeuomorphism by focusing on uncomplicated images with a clean and simplistic aesthetic. Flat designs avoid the use of shading, gradients, and rounded edges to stay minimalistic and keep a two-dimensional appearance.

Skeuomorphism and flat design do not have to be mutually exclusive in UI design. While current app icons utilize flat design to maintain a clean home screen appearance, features within the app, such as drawing tools in a notebook, can look realistic. As technology continues to evolve, design will change with it, but skeuomorphism remains a valuable tool to connect digital users to the physical world.

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