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Skeuomorphic Website Design

Balancing Nostalig and Innovation

Are you familiar with pull-to-refresh on your mobile device? What about the meaning of “swipe right?” In the early days of digital design, developers often prioritized skeuomorphic design to ensure users could interact with their programming. But as comfort and experience with technology increases, many companies are moving away from skeuomorphic design to rethink the digital experience.

A skeuomorph is a design feature that mimics the appearance or function of something from the past, even if it’s no longer used in the current context. It’s like the digital camera on your smartphone that still has a “click” when you snap a photo. It’s those icons on your computer screen that mimic real-life objects – the floppy disk save icon or recycling bin. Even your digital calendar or newsletter may sport spiral bindings, torn paper edges, or a page-turning animation — all in an attempt to evoke familiarity with a paper copy. These elements might be unnecessary in today’s context, but they make us feel at home in the digital realm.

Skeuomorphism is like a bridge between the past and the future. It keeps the old in sync with the new, ensuring we don’t feel lost in a sea of innovation. However, this design approach also comes with its own set of challenges. What was once familiar and accessible may no longer resonate with a tech-savvy generation. Ask a student today about floppy disks, and you might get a puzzled look. But say swipe right—a concept not based on a real-world counterpart—and many people know exactly what you mean, even outside of its original context

Give this a try. Show this symbol # around your office and ask people what they call it. In our office, we heard: the hashtag symbol, the number symbol, the pound sign, and (our favorite) the octothorpe. Copy editors and musicians would likely add to our growing list of definitions.

With so many possible interpretations, it becomes evident that symbols like “#” can vary greatly in meaning depending on one’s background, profession, or generational context. This simple example highlights the challenge of skeuomorphic design – what might be familiar and meaningful to one group can be entirely foreign or even confusing to another.

As technology continues to evolve and become more integrated into our daily lives, the digital experience needs to be inclusive and user-friendly for diverse audiences. This requires a shift away from relying solely on skeuomorphic design, which may inadvertently exclude or confuse users who don’t share the same cultural or generational references. Instead, designers are embracing more universal and intuitive design principles to create digital interfaces that can be easily understood and enjoyed by a broader spectrum of users.

Here are some key principles to consider:

Accessibility Matters: While skeuomorphic elements can add a touch of nostalgia, they must not compromise accessibility. Ensure that your design choices are inclusive and considerate of users with disabilities. Test your website with screen readers and other assistive technologies to ensure a seamless experience for all. Avoid the common pitfall of uploading PDFs or images of paper copies to your website. A virtual bookshelf can be a fun way to display content, but it rarely meets accessibility and searchability requirements.

Searchability is Key: Skeuomorphic design elements can be visually appealing, but they should not hinder the searchability of your content. Users should be able to find the information they need quickly and easily. Optimize your content for search engines and use clear navigation. Most importantly, be certain to offer a search bar that is easy to spot on your home page. 

Think Globally: Remember that some skeuomorphic elements may have cultural or generational connotations. What is familiar to one group might be entirely foreign to another. When designing for diverse audiences, strive for universal design principles that resonate across cultures and age groups. Don’t assume all users have the same level of tech expertise—design should be user-friendly for all, from tech novices to digital experts.

Be Consistent: “Do you have a weather app on your mobile device?” asks Ashley Winter, CEL Content Marketing Coordinator. “At a glance, you can see from the graphic if it’s going to be sunny, rainy, snowy. But there are examples when there’s no easy skeuomorphic option—the symbol for fog, for example, is often a cloud with two lines below it. That may not be universally understood. But with consistency, users will learn and adopt the meaning into their own digital lexicons. As you develop your own website terminology and navigation, be consistent so users can develop a level of understanding and comfort with your site.” This includes things like using links and button styles consistently and using clear navigation so people know where they’re going before they click.

Aesthetic Balance: While skeuomorphism can add a touch of charm, be cautious not to overdo it. Strive for a balance between aesthetics and functionality. The design should enhance the user experience without overwhelming it with unnecessary ornamentation.

“It’s important to design with the audience in mind,” says Kelly May, CEL Designer Director. “A flipbook or animated experience can be fun, but sometimes busy readers want to skim information. If your design slows down the user experience too much, you may find people won’t engage with your content at all.”

Video content, podcasts, and long-form writing all have their place in your marketing mix, but it’s important to think about the expectations of a modern audience. If someone comes to your website looking for an important event date, ensure that information is readily available and not buried inside animated books or in the middle of a video.

Stay Open to Innovation: While skeuomorphism can provide comfort, it should not stifle innovation. Encourage your team to explore fresh, user-centric approaches that align with the evolving needs and expectations of your audience. This applies to navigation and site mapping especially—are you designing strategically or thinking in terms of a filing cabinet? 

“It’s easy to draft your sitemap in the same way you might fill a filing cabinet,” says Andrew A. Hagen, CEL Integrated Communications Coordinator. “A page for each department with subpages for specific content. But that’s not necessarily how your end-user experiences content or searches for information. We have to move beyond how we’ve always done things to really think through your website in a strategic, personalized way.”

Tailor to Your Unique Needs: Your website is a unique digital space with its own objectives and user base. Don’t assume that design decisions made for one website will apply seamlessly to yours. Customize your design choices to align with your specific goals and brand identity. Is your audience more comfortable with familiar design, or are they ready for a new experience? If your organization prides itself on technological innovation, that should be obvious from the first click on your website.

“Your values and differentiators should shine through no matter how people gain entry to your website,” advises Ashley. “Whether it’s through the welcoming doorway of your homepage, a direct entry into your careers section, or a digital advertisement leading the way, the design journey matters. That’s why it’s important to thoughtfully design your website and your branding to convey your values, no matter how someone gets to you. Crafting the aesthetics and navigation isn’t just a mundane decision; it’s a pivotal part of the user experience.”

User-Centric Design: Keep the focus on the user. Understand their preferences, behaviors, and needs. Conduct user testing and gather feedback to refine your design choices continually. Prioritize a seamless and enjoyable user experience.

“The Millennial generation is known to be tech-savvy,” shares Ashley, “but technological acumen can’t be defined by any specific generation. What we know is that websites and digital experiences need to evolve as users do—it’s no longer optional to have a website. Whether you’re a business, a non-profit, a school, or an art experience—you need a website. And just having a presence is no longer enough. It needs to be a tailored digital experience that speaks to who you are. User expectations are growing at the speed of technological evolution. Things that are cutting-edge today may be an expected feature in a few years.”

Blending Nostalgia with Futurism

Skeuomorphism in design is like a comforting hug from the past, where the digital world pays homage to its analog ancestors. But in today’s fast-paced world of design and technology, striking a balance between skeuomorphism and innovation matters. As we continue our journey into a digital era, designers who find that sweet spot will blend the comforting embrace of the past with the exciting possibilities of the future.

“As a designer, my goal is to craft digital experiences that resonate with users,” says Sam. “This means a fine line between evoking a sense of familiarity (skeuomorphic design) while embracing modern design and technology. Skeuomorphic elements provide that comforting bridge to the past, but don’t let them overshadow innovation. Balancing the two is an art – one that ensures our designs feel like home while also propelling users into the future.”

So, as you embark on designing or revamping your website, we’re here to help you think carefully about your choices. Do skeuomorphic elements strategically enhance user experience, or are they inadvertently holding you back from creating a modern and inclusive digital space?


Published on: October 21, 2023