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In a recent article (in a series) relating to the use of 'materials' in the Microsoft Fluent Design System, I pondered the difference between the mimicry of physical materials in the digital medium (in this case it was acrylic) compared to the skeuomorphism that dominated the UI landscape for a significant period of time (and might still be making a comeback). Even though the article was using origami to draw some comparisons between the physical nature of materials and how it impacts the designs you can create, it wasn't quite as clear on the exact value/benefit of doing this in the user interface.

For those that want to dive a little bit deeper, the Acrylic material implemented in Fluent Design System is explained in more details.

As a question on UXSE, I am curious as to whether there is a distinction to be found between the traditional application of skeuomorphism as a design strategy (the mimic of a physical object in the user interface) to this new take on mimicry of physical properties that is used to enhance certain aspects of the user experience in an application.

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    I have not time to write an answer now, but the main difference is that skeuomorphism is a static graphic style while the MS design is a graphic system with many applications and possibilities. This answer can help to clarify.
    – Danielillo
    Feb 23, 2021 at 0:18
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    @Danielillo thanks for the reference link :) I read the answer there and I am wondering if the definition or implementation of skeuomorphism these days (e.g. in Apple's new iOS visual styling and design) if bridging that gap between a static graphic style versus a graphic design system. I shall come back with a bounty in a couple of days to see if I can attract some answers :)
    – Michael Lai
    Feb 23, 2021 at 5:17
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    Keep in mind that beyond styles and uses, skeuomorphism is something "demodé" (francais). There is a new style with a combination between flat design and skeuomorphism not fully developed yet but with very good exponents. Best explained in this question
    – Danielillo
    Feb 23, 2021 at 5:53
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    @Danielillo some really good points raised in the references provided (not sure if I should incorporate into question or if you will distil the content and provide an answer from the UX design perspective :)
    – Michael Lai
    Feb 23, 2021 at 23:09
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    It's not so easy to write an answer to your question, I think it covers a wide spectrum with many points to consider such as design evolution, perception, usability ... You can add the references to your question, in fact both links are an answer and a question of my authorship 😉
    – Danielillo
    Feb 24, 2021 at 4:39

2 Answers 2

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Both skeuomorphism and the more modern interpretation of it (material design and fluent design etc) provide affordance to the user, enabling and inviting them to interact with the interface.

However, skeuomorphism is just not suited to an extendable design system. You and I might have a slightly different interpretation of how to portray a skeuomorphic object. But using a modern design system, the individuality has been left out for a more consistent experience that still provides the necessary cues for usability.

We thus turned towards a solution that utilises 'surfaces' more than photorealistic imagery. In a way, it's going in the opposite direction of where the animated feature film industry is going; from Lion King to the Lion King remake, we've moved from a cartoonish animation to a realistic one. And plenty of people seem to like it.

However, it terms of interfaces, this reverse trend makes sense, as it's not one creator making things for all, it's many creators making things for the same user.

The distinction lies in defining the relationship between humans and interfaces. While skeuomorphism rests on our natural environment as the learning playground of our understanding, and builds on top of it, the new material/ surface design starts from the flat surface of a mobile phone or screen, and gives it depth and context. It provides a framework for users to discover that their 5 inches of screen is actually not just 5 inches, it can be scrolled, zoomed, pinched, rotated etc to give you a new playground of interactivity. And this interactivity is provided by elevation, light and shadows, surfaces and scaling.

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+50

I understand your question as: is the use of "materials" just another instance of skeuomorphism or a totally different trend ?

There is no data to link both specifically. Skeuomorphism was a "trend" that I felt was a way for visual designers to flex their visual design muscles, but also proved to be an effective way to onboard less tech-savvy people in the digital world, making it more appealing and more easy to understand as they could translate their offline experience to the online world. It proves very effective for mobile applications, not so much on the web (because of the potentially high kilobyte size of the required visual assets and the difficulty to make it responsive).

The use of material (first introduced by Google and the Material Design guidelines) brought awareness to subtle aspects of human perception that help us evolve in an environment: Depth and animations are probably the 2 biggest takeaways from that approach. This is a design philosophy that is much more solid and articulated than skeuomorphism and to understand its richness and relevance, i would refer you to the Gestalt laws of design.

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  • +1 Yes, the way I worded the question reflected my own interpretation of the ambiguity that is associated with both terms with modern design trends. Microsoft Fluent doesn't really make any reference to skeuomorphism, but mimicking a material/object from the physical world in the digital medium is my understanding of the skeuomorphism entails.
    – Michael Lai
    Mar 4, 2021 at 22:55

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