Skeuomorphic versus flat

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Skeuomorphism is defined as an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material (courtesy: Wikipedia

Apple created several skeuomorphic interfaces for their desktop and mobile apps; apps such as iCal, iBooks, Find My Friends, Podcast apps, and several others.

This kind of interface was both loved and hated among the design community and users. It was a style that focused a lot on the detail and texture, making the interface heavier and often more complex, but interesting because of the clear connection to the real objects depicted here. It was an enjoyable and rich experience for the user due to the high detail and interaction that a skeuomorphic interface presented, which served to attract the eye to the detail and care put into these designs; for example, the page flip in iBooks, visually representing the swipe of a page as in a traditional book. But this style also had its downsides.

Besides being a harsh transition from the traditional interfaces (as in the case of Apple, in which it meant coming from its famous glassy and clean looking Aqua interface), several skeuomorphic applications on the desktop didn't seem to fit in the overall OS look. Apart from stylistic preferences and incoherent looks, skeuomorphic design is also a bad design choice because the style in itself is a limitation to innovation. By replicating the traditional and analogical designs, the designer doesn't have the option or the freedom to imagine, create, and design new interfaces and interactions with the user. Flat design, being the extremely simple and clear style that it is, gives all the freedom to the designer by ignoring any kind of limitations and effects. But both styles have a place and time to be used, and skeuomorphic is great for applications such as Propellerheads that are directly replacing hardware, such as audio mixers. Using these kinds of interfaces makes it easier for new users to learn how to use the real hardware counterpart, while at the same time previous users of the hardware will already know how to use the interface with ease.

Regardless of the style, a good designer must be ready to create an interface that is adapted to the needs of the user and the market. To exemplify this and to better learn the basic differences between flat and skeuomorphic, let's do a quick exercise.

Exercise – the skeuomorphic and flat buttons

In this exercise, we'll create a simple call to an action button, the copy of Buy Now. We'll create this element twice; first we'll take a look at the skeuomorphic approach by creating a realistic looking button with texture, shadow, and depth. Next, we will simply convert it to its flat counterpart by removing all those extra elements and adapting it to a minimalistic style.

You should have all the materials you'll need for this exercise. We will use the typeface Lato, also available for free on Google Fonts, and the image wood.jpg for the texture on the skeuomorphic button. We'll just need Photoshop for this exercise, so let's open it up and use the following steps:

  1. Create a new Photoshop document with 800 x 600 px. This is where we will create our buttons.
  2. Let's start by creating the skeuomorphic one. We start by creating a rectangle with the rounded rectangle tool, with a radius of 20 px. This will be the face of our button. To make it easier to visualize the element while we create it, let's make it gray (#a2a2a2).

  3. Now that we have our button face created, let's give some depth to this button. Just duplicate the layer (command + J on Mac or Ctrl + J on Windows) and pull it down to 10 or 15 px, whichever you prefer. Let's make this new rectangle a darker shade of gray (#393939) and make sure that this layer is below the face layer. You should now have a simple gray button with some depth. The side layer simulates the depth of the button by being pulled down for just a couple of pixels, and since we made it darker, it resembles a shadow.

  4. Now for the call to action. Create a textbox on top of the button face, set its width to that of the button, and center the text. In there, write Buy Now, and set the text to Lato, weight to Black, and size to 50 pt. Center it vertically just by looking at the screen, until you find that it sits correctly in the center of the button.

  5. Now to make this button really skeuomorphic, let's get our image wood.jpg, and let's use it as our texture. Create a new layer named wood-face and make sure it's above our face layer. Now to define the layer as a texture and use our button as a mask, we're going to right-click on the layer and click on Create clipping mask. This will mask our texture to overlay the button face.

  6. For the side texture, duplicate the wood-face layer, rename it to wood-side and repeat the preceding instructions for the side layer. After that, and to have a different look, move the wood-face layer around and look for a good area of the texture to use on the side, ideally something with some up strips to make it look more realistic.

  7. To finish the side, create a new layer style in the side layer, gradient overlay, and make a gradient from black to transparent and change the settings as shown in the following screenshot. This will make a shadow effect on top of the wood, making it look a lot better.

  8. To finish our skeuomorphic button, let's go back to the text and define the color as #7b3201 (or another shade of brown; try to pick from the button and make it slightly darker until you find that it looks good), so that it looks like the text is carved in the wood.

  9. The last touch will be to add an Inner Shadow layer style in the text with the settings shown. Group all the layers and name it Skeuomorphic and we're done.

    And now we have our skeuomorphic button. It's a really simple way of doing it but we recreated the look of a button made out of wood just by using shapes, texture, and some layer styles.

Now for our flat version:

  1. Duplicate the group we just created and name it flat. Move it to the other half of the workspace.
  2. Delete the following layers: wood-face, wood-side, and side.
  3. This button will not have any depth, so we do not need the side layer as well as the textures. To keep the button in the same color scheme as our previous one, we'll use the color #7b3201 for our text and face. Your document should look like what is shown in the following screenshot:

  4. Create a new layer style and choose Stroke with the following settings. This will create the border of our button. To make the button transparent, let's reduce the Layer Fill option to 0 percent, which will leave only the layer styles applied.

  5. Let's remove the layer styles from our text to make it flat, reduce the weight of the font to Bold to make it thinner and roughly the same weight of the border, and align it visually, and our flat button is done!

This type of a transparent button is great for flat interfaces, especially when used over a blurred color background. This is because it creates an impactful button with very few elements to it, creating a transparent control and making great use of the white space in the design. In design, especially when designing flat, remember that less is more.

With this exercise, you were able to build a skeuomorphic element and deconstruct it down to its flat version, which is as simple as a rounded rectangle with border and text. The font we chose is frequently used for flat design layouts; it's simple but rounded and it works great with rounded-corner shapes such as the ones we just created.


Flat design is a digital style of design that has been one of the biggest trends in recent years in web and user interface design. It is famous for its extremely minimalistic style. It has appeared at a time when skeuomorphic, a style of creating realistic interfaces, was considered to be the biggest and most famous trend, making this a really rough and extreme transition for both users and designers. We covered how to design in skeuomorphic and in flat, and what their main differences are.

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