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Pity the endangered skeuomorph, the Comic Sans of app design

Good-bye apps featuring leather texture, wood shelves, rivets, analog clocks, speaker grills, stitches, torn paper and gears... the modern design movement doesn’t want skeuomorphic design cues any more.

Screengrab of Apple iPhone

Should the calendar on your phone or tablet look like the calendar on your desk? Strange as it sounds, that's the core of a heated debate amongst digital designers – and also the reason that iPhone and iPad owners will soon have a fresh look on their devices.

When Apple holds its Worldwide Developer Conference next week, design chief Johnny Ive will almost certainly unveil a new look for the company's popular mobile operating system. Apple will also probably announce a new streaming music service – and it's likely there won't be a digital stitch, volume knob in sight.

What's driving the change is a growing backlash against "skeuomorphs." That's the name given to design elements that call back to something that existed before, like the familiar animated page turn in digital reading apps, or the radio buttons that are so common on smartphones.

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Many at the cutting-edge of the design field, however, positively hate the skeuomorph. They claim it limits how we interact with digital devices, forcing interfaces with which we're already familiar. Instead of inventing new ways of doing things with digital information, we're stuck in the mentality of books, dayplanners or old stereos.

Apple especially has recently relied on these features a lot. Its podcast app was initially poorly received, in part because it mimicked an old tape player, something Apple has since changed to something more text-based. Because the company is particularly known for sleek designs, such use of skeuopmorphs has nonetheless resulted in a lot criticism, as many feel it is a lazy design crutch – or worse, is just ugly.

In the next version of iOS, the new focus will instead be something called flat design, which abandons skeuomorphs and things like gradual changes in color for text against solid backgrounds. Right now, the most mainstream example of the trendy approach comes (surprisingly) from Microsoft. The design of both Windows 8 and Windows Phone prominently features text on bold and bright squares, and the result is arguably more aesthetically pleasing and modern-looking than software from either Google or Apple.

At the same time, the complete lack of familiar visual cues can make things confusing to newcomers. Windows 8 especially confounds even experienced users because the signs we're used to – like shadows under boxes that can be clicked, or helpful clues as to where the settings are – simply aren't there. It raises a sticky issue for the fashionable geeks clamouring for flat design. Perhaps skeuopmorphs are ugly or simply outdated, but they also serve a clear purpose: they make digital interfaces simple to understand, especially for the millions of people still confused or stymied by their digital devices.

The skeuomorph, then, is a way of hand-holding, guiding people into digital interfaces until they start to become familiar with how things might be done differently. The more familiar people become with digital ideas, though, the more limiting old ways of relating to information become. Take the to-do list or endless piles of e-mail we get. Recent apps like Clear or Mailbox rely on unique swiping gestures designed for touch screens rather than metaphors of folders or check boxes from paper, and they're much better off for it. Both apps have a cleanliness and efficiency that stems from providing digital-only solutions to what are largely digital problems.

Thought of that way, then, the move away from skeuomorphs toward flat design is a signal digital is finally starting to feel "natural" and familiar – and that we are increasingly moving away from both paper and the past.

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