UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1157 December 11, 2013

Flat Ain’t All That: The power of skeuomorphic design in selling stories

With the rise of “flat” design that has been talked about to death, I’ve been considering whether or not texture, realism and, to use the vernacular of the masses, “skeuomorphism” still has a place in design, and if so, where. Are the pitchforks against realistic details warranted, and should we join the rallying cry to commit widespread texturecide?

What’s the Opposite of Flat?

First, I’d like to define this “anti-flat” style of realism a little bit. What do we typically see? Texture, depth, lighting, and tone are typically concepts associated with this style of design. Lots of detail (some might say illusions, Michael) incorporated into a rich space make users think they’re looking at something else. But why would anyone want to do this? Wouldn’t a white screen with clean type be better? Maybe, but not always.

A Lesson from the Movies

I went to school for industrial design and have an ongoing obsession with props and sets. You know, movie stuff. My dream long ago was to be a production designer on-set, building worlds that appeared real to an audience. In that industry, detail is everything.

In order to maintain an illusion, every little thing must be taken into account or the fantasy will be broken (watch the Lord of the Rings special features to get an idea of the painstaking work this requires). The elements you create as a production designer support a fiction, a short-lived fantasy that people want to believe, but it needs to be complete from end-to-end to work. Audiences want to get lost in these make-believe worlds, if only for a little while.

The video game and film industries make a ton of money using skeuomorphic design almost exclusively

Here’s where I may be losing you. You may be asking, “Ok, but what the hell does this have to do with skeuomorphism?” Well, it’s all about creating an illusion, and although flat is on the upswing, there are two main arenas of marketing where it will never work.

Enter Entertainment Marketing

The video game industry, once a small, niche market, has become the most profitable entertainment industry, overtaking even films in annual revenue. The game industry came in at $67 billion in 2012, while the film industry came in at $34 billion for theatrical releases.

Compare this combined $100+ billion (with a “b”) with the totaled 2013 earnings of Google, Apple, and Microsoft (the apparent champions of flat design) and you get something like $97 billion. Neck and neck, right? For now. The video game industry alone is expected to reach $87 billion dollars a year by 2017, but I’m not trying to make the point that one style of design is more profitable than another.

What I am saying is the video game and film industries make a ton of money and use skeuomorphic design techniques almost exclusively. A dead style of design? I think not.

Why it Works

As I said before, realism and skeuomorphism are about creating a fantasy. When you are selling a movie (typically blockbusters) or a video game, you are selling a fiction, and each fantasy world is unique; it has a story, a feeling, an experience. Like designing the set for that movie, or the interface for that game, every element must exude the feeling of the fantasy and fit the world. You simply can’t do that with flat design the way you can with realistic skeuomorphism. You can’t sell the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 with Helvetica and white space, nor can you sell Infinity Blade with flat icons.

Consider the summer blockbuster The Avengers:

ZURB Quips

Not quite the same punch as the hyper-real look of the official site, huh? Please forigve the comp I hacked together from Google images!

ZURB Quips

The military-tech look of the Call of Duty brand comes through on the site. A flat version doesn't have that dramatic Tom Clancy future warrior feel, does it?

ZURB Quips

Candy Crush makes you want to eat the icons, not little pieces of paper.

Conclusion

Granted, my poorly hacked examples are an exaggeration, but you get the idea. Flat design may be aesthetically appealing to more minimally inclined designers, but in some instances it won't do the subject justice—or help sell the product. These are emotional concepts that require visceral, emotional connections. We must feel it to want it.

While flat design is good for frequent, task-based interaction, it’s not a universal design tool that can be used when selling emotion, fantasy and escapism. Different jobs require different tools, so before you trash all your texture folders and sell your Wacom, consider what you are designing for. Are you introducing a user to a fictional world? If so, you might want to dust off those realism techniques—they are far from dead.

 

This article originally appeared on the Elevated Third blog. Lead image copyright Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Judd is the Creative Director at Denver-based digital agency Elevated Third, where he joined the company shortly after its inception in 2005. He currently oversees the information architecture and creative processes with a growing interest in messaging and content strategy.

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Comments

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I don't think people should be so quick to jump off and on bandwagons. I think every design style has it's place. Flat design currently has a lot of momentum but it's starting to feel cliche and a parody of itself, especially when it's done poorly by late adopters.

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Flat design and entertainment can work very well together. For instance the iOS games Dots and OLO use flat design and is every bits as entertaining as say angry birds or candy crush. Also in the film industry there are examples of flat design, Lars von Triers Dogville and Manderlay where most of the film set is a flat surface with white lines. There are no doubt more examples of this if you look for them.

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I don't think using extremely exaggerated examples of flat design to make your point of flat v. skeu in the entertainment industry helps it very much. It's easy to say "look! see how bad this is in comparison?" when you didn't put much effort into it.

I agree with the overall point of the article which is skeumorphism has it's place; however, I just keep getting distracted by the bad examples. :/

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Those you are talking about are more animated adverts than websites.
Let's put it like this: whenever you need to actually use the web as a tool to achieve something, flat wins hands down. And it does because it doesn't try to imitate something that the web is not.

If you are just trying to be entertained, that's another story, people use puzzles for entertainment but your city council wouldn't think of sending you the water bill as a puzzle, would it..

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I disagree. If nothing else you generalise far too much. You forget the audience. If I was designing a site for young children, why would I make it purposefully flat? The engagement and enjoyment can come from textured objects or objects with a sense of depth.

Flat design has it's place, but even then it has to be done right.

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Thanks for the article, Judd.

Interesting read. I would be surprised if anyone out there is going "flat" when designing for the video game or film industry. It's a no-brainer that users of these products want all the eye candy that goes with it. The flat approach is one that works tremendously well where your task is to read an article, or quickly carry out a frequent task, as you mention...

"While flat design is good for frequent, task-based interaction, it’s not a universal design tool that can be used when selling emotion, fantasy and escapism. Different jobs require different tools, so before you trash all your texture folders and sell your Wacom, consider what you are designing for."

As a designer, I have to confess that some of my favorite mobile apps are Gmail, Instapaper, and Square Cash - all flat.

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I agree with you. Flat design is just one of many styles that you can adapt to a situation. It's good for reading and repetative tasks, not so good for emotion. Unless that is what you're aiming for :)

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Thanks for the comment! I agree, I'm a big on PayPal, Evernote and Twitter for mobile and on day one of iOS7 I saw them all move towards flat, which I think works well. I even prefer the new look of each. The problem is when designers think EVERYTHING should be that way. Similar to handwritten fonts or quirky animations, there's a time and place to use them for maximum potency. I think the flat style is simply another example of that. Really good for certain things, but at the same time, just another tool in the toolbox.

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Plus Hearthstone is an awesome game.