Skeuomorphism is a UX/UI design term that describes interface elements that mimic their real-world counterparts in visual appearances and/or the ways that users interact with them. Buttons, icons, and cards are just a few of the interface objects that are commonly used in skeuomorphic design. 

One of the most familiar skeuomorphic examples might be the trash bin icon. Users, already familiar with trash bins in the real world, easily adapt to the idea of moving unwanted digital files into the little bin icon on their desktop or within an app.

What is Skeuomorphic Design Used For?

First and foremost, skeuomorphism can be a powerful tool to help users pick up on important functionality that you might otherwise need to use extensive UX microcopy to guide their experience. (In fact, skeuomorphism found a stalwart champion in Steve Jobs, who utilized the technique to help humans make the drastic shift into the computer age in the 1990s, followed by another substantial shift into mobile devices in the 2000s.)

Is Skeuomorphism Still Relevant?

While there will always be a learning curve involved with using technology—whether because you are unfamiliar with a particular app, or because you’re just making the switch from a desktop to, say, a tablet—digital devices have taken on a life of their own.

Early on, Apple Books delivered a more immersive experience with “real” bookshelves, where you could peruse through your digital books in a way that felt similar to the books you might have on your bookshelf at home.

A screenshot of Apple Bookshelves Skeuomorphism

Now, however, the interface is simplified, with the assumption that you’ll be able to recognize a book cover without the bookshelf background.

>> Screenshot of current Apple Books mobile  interface <<

Aside from the fact that most people are now familiar with digital interfaces, there are also technical challenges that may need to be addressed, since skeuomorphic elements tend to use more intricate shadows, depth, and other visual design aspects that can be challenging to scale.

Regardless of the challenges, skeuomorphism continues to be a helpful consideration for visual interface and interaction designers who need to address the unique challenges of making digital products more accessible and easy to understand to users of all technical skill levels.