Goodbye, Skeuomorphism

Goodbye, Skeuomorphism

This is why the save button almost universally still looks like a floppy disk, and why your smartphone still makes a shutter click despite having no physical shutter. It makes the digital interpretation of things easily intuitive and understandable to new users right away, and makes novel ideas seem familiar.


If you’ve ever wondered why your computer is full of digital versions of physical items like trash cans, folders, and paper documents, this is why. Most are already familiar with the purpose of a real world trash can, so we immediately understand we put files to delete in the computer version of a “trash can” without even having used it before.

Skeuomorphism served an important purpose during the time personal computers in the home were only becoming ubiquitous in the American household — people were learning how to use computers en masse.

Skeuomorphism is Everywhere

One of the more interesting examples of this came from the influential interface-designer-turned-billionaire-tech-tycoon Charles Simonyi. In 1981, Simonyi joined Microsoft and helped developed Microsoft Word and took a skeuomorphic approach in developing the program to use a paper-like writing experience and references to physical office tools — folders, letters, magnifying glasses, and the infamous floppy disk save button. It’s no surprise that these choices to the user experience were contributing factors to the massive success of the program.

Since then, the need to “translate” physical systems to their digital form to onboard new users is slowly becoming less relevant. More and more people are becoming familiar with using digital systems at increasingly younger ages (I’m looking at you, iPad kids).

So it’s no surprise now that this design philosophy is phasing out of its golden days. After all, why would you willingly limit digital capabilities with the restrictions of physical tools? The popular document workspace software Notion is a great example of software that ditches these restrictions.


Imagine you yourself are designing a computer program for users to record and store information. Knowing that your average user is digitally literate, why would you restrict all your user’s working space to inconveniently chopped up rectangles that only have one dimension of navigation (scrolling up and down)?

Navigation and searching information becomes a headache, and it makes no sense. The opportunity is presenting itself to think beyond what is physically possible. Inline databases, documents within documents, modularity, viewing preferences are just some of the concepts Notion can take advantage of by ditching the traditional page by page interface.

I had a conversation with a friend some time ago who wanted to improve how his team referenced guides, information, and real-time updates in a physical warehouse operating center. His first idea was to create an AR-powered application for to allow his team members to view tooltip-like overlays on top of their physical equipment with a camera.

I understand where he was coming from, that seemed like a terrible idea. Right off the bat, this would restrict the efficiency of gathering information by introducing physical overhead. Being forced to run over to the other side of the building with an iPad camera just to view a piece information does not seem like a fun time.

Put more simply, what I’m trying to say is:

Solutions to physical problems should not always mean directly translating them digitally.

My Google Chrome tabs while writing this.
My Google Chrome tabs while writing this.

Yes, even browsers laid out like manila file folder tabs with color and text.

So the next time you find yourself thinking about a new digital solution, don’t fall into the trap of restricting your solution to the physical dimension from the get go. Though there are forms of skeuomorphism are harmless (like the smartphone camera shutter noise), there are so many interesting and novel ways to better design the overall interaction between humans and computer systems just waiting to be explored.


The Logic Model of Creativity
August 1, 2023
Goodbye, Skeuomorphism
January 7, 2024
A Love Letter to the Uniball Signo 207
January 1, 2024
Can Multiple AI Agents Work as a “Company”?
October 14, 2023
How to Stop Being Afraid of Starting Something
July 30, 2023