What is Neumorphic Design?
“New skeuomorphism,” ”Neumorphism,” or “Soft UI,” is an emergent trend for 2020 that revitalizes the practice of designing interface objects to mimic their real-world counterparts.
Skeuomorphism emerged in the 1980s with Steve Jobs of Apple as one of its earliest supporters. He became a proponent of the idea that using visual metaphors to illustrate UI elements would make using a computer or graphical interface more intuitive. The trash can for deletion, folders for organization, and floppy disk for saving are leading examples that come to mind and still exist today. Skeuomorphism became the new design standard for a generation coming to grips with a new digital era.
In 2013, with the release of iOS 7, Apple introduced Flat UI, which rang the death knell for skeuomorphism. Woodgrain shelves to hold digital books and leather calendars became kitchshy and no longer held appeal. Gratuitous drop shadows and gradients fell out of style in favor of the minimalism of Flat UI.
Aside from purely aesthetic reasons, skeuomorphism died of obsolescence. Today, users are so accustomed to digital interfaces, employing skeuomorphism can trap users into false metaphors. How effective is a metaphor that predates the user anyway? The latest generation of tech users is unlikely to have ever seen a rolodex or floppy disk.
So fast-forward 7 years to 2020, when a new skeuomorphism began to show up in concepts on Dribbble and Behance as an evolution from Google’s Material Design, adding depth back into Flat UI. It’s a much softer, more subdued version of its predecessor. It brings a certain freshness to interface design, but it lacks the nostalgia of skeuomorphism.
Is This Trend Here to Stay?
The longevity of this particular trend is as questionable as any stylistic trend. Here’s a framework for deciding if a neumorphic aesthetic will work for you:
Will your product accompany or replace a physical appliance? If so, you may want your digital replacement to look and feel as similar as possible. Think about an IOT appliance controller like a thermostat app or an app for remotely starting your car.
Are you targeting low-vision users or does your product need to meet AA or AAA standards?
That gorgeous softness that comes with all truly neumorphic designs doesn’t lend itself well to accessibility. Always consider how your designs will function for vision impaired or low-vision users. Low contrast ratios already plague neumorphic designs. Those ratios will further plummet for vision impaired users.
Is a new, trendy design aesthetic important to your brand? Were you planning on doing a redesign anyway? If so, and if you’re willing to put in the work to make it accessible, perhaps a neumorphic aesthetic is just what your app needs.
Use your best judgement to pick scenarios where neumorphism makes sense. Otherwise, it runs the same risk as skeuomorphism—the risk of cluttering interfaces without providing real meaning.
Neumorphism and “Dribbblification”
Dribbble is one of the greatest show and tell arenas for designers, but it has its drawbacks. It is a place of expression which means many of the dazzling shots are what designers wish for but are often not real world solutions. They are snapshots of UIs that were designed for beauty that would most likely crumble under the pressures of user and business needs. Many of these designs are form only.
Unfortunately, a stigma accompanies popular trends on Dribbble. Once a trend has become all the rage on Dribbble it tends to lose meaning, and becomes just an aesthetic stimulus for other designers. Pay attention to the descriptions of neumorphic designs on Dribbble to suss out whether designs are real solutions or designer fever dreams.
Still Not Sure? Let Your Users Inform You
If you think a neumorphic UI could be a great solution for your product, go for it. Validate your decision with user testing. At WillowTree, we use both remote and in-person testing to evaluate all of our digital products and ensure form doesn’t trump function. With the right combination of qualitative research and quantitative data, you can get a deep understanding of your users’ needs and opinions to inform the UX/UI design of your product. Learn more about how our product design and research capabilities can enhance your digital product.