A design trend in recent months has gained traction: neumorphism. A strange uncanny valley look, it’s a kind of drop-shadows-meets-flat-design design. Just enough shadow and elevation, as if to mimic real industrial design.
Digital design has long gone back and forth with dimension. Our medium is inherently flat. First, on a large, convex CRT screen, and now on a high-dpi retina screen that brings fidelity ever closer. And we embraced skeuomorphic design with aplomb — we wanted to feel something, even if all we could do was look at an interface and use an abstract substitute in the form of a mouse for our hands to touch (or rather, click) that thing.
Over the past five years, we eschewed drop shadows and gradients in favor of pragmatic flat design: an initially trend-driven repulsion of the design we’d been doing all along, driven by minimalism and worshipping at the altar of Rams, chanting the mantra, “Less is more!”
We saw mobile phones and devices close the gap between abstraction on the desktop and the interfaces we wished we could handle. We touch screens and buttons directly beneath our fingertips; we move, swipe, and gesture our way to direct manipulation. It feels powerful because devices change and morph into branded, purpose-driven interfaces that allow us to summon transport, buy anything, and communicate with anyone.
Apple’s introduction of a flatter iOS with version 7, that eliminated all that was skeuomorphic before it was a reset. It wiped the slate clean. We were left with using dimension to a beneficial effect.
Some elements have since standardized into dimension. For example, cards.
Here’s Google employing Material in its search results:
Google uses cards for each search result and then adds a layer that acts independently from it. The top section, “Directors,” utilizes a pills/tab system, then a subset of cards for each female director. That track is a side-scroll/swipe interaction. The section it sits in is on the same plane as a results card.
The search engine quickly breaks from this convention, however:
Under “People Also Search For,” that same track isn’t contained inside of its card. Rather, it floats, appearing disconnected from the module. Why not just extend the module edge-to-edge as illustrated in the first image?
I gave a talk in 2008 at SXSW entitled, “Design is in the Details.” I spoke generally about being deliberate with details and achieving high fidelity when executing a realistic comp/mock or prototype that captures the right feel. My point, though I didn’t mention the term, was user experience.
I’m not advocating for nor poo-poo-ing these visual trends, animations, or gestures (pull to refresh was and still is a blessing). Some of these push boundaries, encouraging digital design to move forward. And some make you wonder, “y tho?” six months later.
As a holistic designer, I look at how to imbue a product with its value proposition, how it reflects the values of its founders and company, and whether or not it remains true to itself and its brand. Diligent product design works in collaboration with all of these things.
We now see how UI elements can lend themselves to a topographical hierarchy. We now recognize how color affects choices and behaviors. We now understand how to guide but also manipulate people into certain actions.
For now, neumorphism is likely to be a Dribbble trend of the week, and as designers it’s our job to know enough about who and what we’re designing for to employ or reject any patterns we come across.
Thanks for reading. Glad you’re here.