KillerSites Blog

Flat Design vs. Skeuomorphism: UX Perspective On Performance And Aesthetic

June 20, 2022

When starting a new creative project one of the first questions you’ll have to answer is what design style you’ll use.

You need to have this pinned down from the early stages because it will influence almost every facet of the process. The design style you use will also impact how your user interacts with the product, which has to be a positive experience.

In the modern world, design styles tend to fall into two major categories:

  1. Flat design
  2. Skeuomorphism

They both have their pros and cons, and their place in the design and real world. The key is to look at the impact of each style and see what your target audience is most likely going to respond to.

We’re going to unpack each design style, its pros and cons, and how it impacts performance and aesthetics that affect the user experience. 

What Is Skeuomorphism?

Firstly, let’s look at some definitions so that we understand exactly what the design styles are. Skeuomorphism is the older of the two in the digital design world. You can trace its roots back to the 1980s when the personal computer was starting to become a reality. People like Steve Jobs realized that the general public would need a little help navigating their way around a computer.

With skeuomorphism, the design looks realistic. For example, the icon on the computer desktop for deleting content is a literal trash can. The icon for saving your work was the image of an old floppy disk, which was where you saved your work to. This type of design helped with making the use of a computer seem normal and every day to people who had never used anything like a computer before.

Skeuomorphism also crops up in real-world designs. Think about the fake-wood paneling in car designs or electric kettles that look like the old-fashioned ones that used to sit on the stove. 

How Does Flat Design Differ From Skeuomorphism?

Flat design is the opposite of skeuomorphism. Icons became less realistic and flatter. There were no longer any shadows behind icons or text; no more beveled edges reflections or color gradients to mimic reality. The design style was all about being free from clutter and removing anything that was deemed unnecessary to the overall image.

This shift happened rather rapidly in 2007 when both Google and Apple changed their user interfaces on their new smartphone operating system releases—Android and iOS, respectively. Windows followed suit with Windows 8, where suddenly the icons were replaced with far less realistic tiles. It was official. Flat design was now the forerunner in popularity for the digital world.

What This Means For Performance From A UX Perspective

The thing is, skeuomorphism is not actually as dead as Forbes declared it to be back in 2007. With the metaverse being a reality for the future, it could be more alive than ever.

When deciding which one to use, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How New Is Your Concept?

Skeuomorphism was initially used in digital design to help users understand what they needed to do with the software or the device. If the concept of your product is new to the market and there may be a steep learning curve for users, then this kind of design can be a big help.

On the other hand, flat design keeps things simple and can help you to bring the user’s focus to the right place. This can be quite an important part of your design if you’re planning a digital product because screen real estate is pretty small now. These days, most online activity takes place on a smartphone or tablet rather than a computer.

  1. What Is The Purpose Of Your Product?

Anything that needs to simulate the real world will need to be designed using skeuomorphism. Online or digital tools like flight simulators and training programs for medical students need to look as realistic as possible for them to be of any use.

  1. What Generation Does Your Main Target Audience Fall Into?

Anyone born after the mid-1990s essentially doesn’t know life without personal computers, smartphones, tablets, and all manner of digital technology. They are completely comfortable with it, and browsing multiple sites, using various apps, and managing digital documents are second nature to them. This generation generally also expects operating systems to be based on a flat design concept. 

If this is your target audience, then you should probably opt for flat design. Although, you could go for a totally retro skeuomorphism look if that suits what your product is about and you can use it as an interesting marketing hook.

On the flip side, anyone born before the 1980s is generally not as comfortable with computers and other technology, meaning that a well-executed skeuomorphism might be the way to go. Older generations can need a bit more help as they try to use new products that are online or use technology.

  1. What Are Your Capabilities?

Execution of your design is always going to be a critical part. Anything that doesn’t gel well with the user will automatically provide a poor experience and put customers off your product. Whichever design style you pick, you need to ensure that it’s well-executed.

Flat design relies heavily on icons being easy to understand. Your user needs to be able to see immediately if an icon does something, and what that is. Users will get frustrated if they can’t tell what they can or should click, or if they need text to explain what an icon does.

Skeuomorphism doesn’t have this problem because the icons resemble things in the real world. However, this design style needs to be executed to perfection. In other words, the reality of the design needs to stand up to user expectations. If the real-world simulation is clunky, doesn’t load quickly enough, or feels too disjointed, the user will look for something else.

Pick A Side 

So, there you have it. With a little bit of thought, it should become evident which design style is better suited to your needs—and those of your target audience. In a world where instant gratification is the norm, great performance, a good aesthetic, and a stand-out UX is always the goal.

Meta Title: How Flat Design & Skeuomorphism Impact UX | Killer Sites

Meta Description: Find out how flat design and skeuomorphism differ and what impact they have on aesthetics and performance. Each design style has its own impact on UX.