When you’re playing with an iPhone, you’re playing with a skeuomorph. This tricky word makes it sound like your mobile device conceals a transforming alien robot. But skeuomorphic design is really just one way to make websites, apps, and other products. All you have to do is fake something else.

This style is everywhere, from Apple products and video games to websites. If it looks so real you can almost touch it, it’s a skeuomorph.

Think of all those digital page turn animations, dashboards, dials and switches that look just like the “real thing”. They aren’t necessary to the function of the product, but designers put them there anyway. A skeuomorphic design adds these animations and graphics to a new product so that it looks or behaves like something different. Frequently, designers match the look and behavior of retro technologies to their cutting edge counterparts.

Some of us remember reading books. On many e-reader apps, animated page-turns make the new experience of using a digital book familiar and pleasing. Detailed textures and real-life touches embedded in Apple products and many other tech toys are like a lump of sugar in your coffee. It’s non-nutritional, but this touchy-feely style can add sweetness and fun. When the iPhone debuted it was dressed in bespoke fabric textures and gleaming metal toggles. Hipstamatic’s Disposable app and website specifically emulate the fun disposable cameras of the past.

However, some users find that life-like features limit overall performance. Detailed graphics can burden the loading time of an app or website and slow down the user’s actions. A new minimalist design movement inspired by the Swiss Style offers an alternative. Who needs to rotate a fake knob when you can enter a precise number to more quickly perform the same task?

Microsoft’s latest products adopt this minimal design language. No twisty knobs or textures, just tappable tiles of color and clean typography. Rather than reference the controls of an older technology, this style tries to make those controls disappear.

Do you dig Apple’s fake-real design schemes? Or do you prefer the pure digital signal of minimalist Metro? Let us know your favorite examples of both styles in the comments.

Further Reading:

Check out this illustrated comparison of skeuomorphic design to Microsoft’s new Metro design style. And for more info about skeuomorphs and interface design, read this analysis from Fast Company.

Need help with your website?  Having trouble pronouncing skeuomorph? Contact Roundpeg, an Indianapolis web design firm.