Skeuomorphism in e-Learning

This article first appeared in e-Learning Insights from the E-Learning Network (ELN) as part of their 24 Tips series.

If you are interested in web and UI design it’s likely you will have come across the great skeuomorphism debate that’s currently raging around Apple. Until a few months ago I didn’t know what skeuomorphism meant but now that I understand the concept I think it’s useful to explore its relevance to e-learning design.

So what is skeuomorphism? Wikipedia defines it as:

A skeuomorph is a physical ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques. For example a calendar application which displays the days organised on animated month pages in imitation of a paper wall calendar.

Skeuomorphic designs are ones that mimic real world objects. Here are some classic examples – all of them iOS apps.

skeuomorphic designs

Skeuomorphism is popular because people are familiar with the real world objects mimicked and also because they have a certain warm and comfy aesthetic. However it’s an approach that has some failings. Firstly, not all of the replicated real world objects worked very well in the first place. My password app Mecrets uses a safe tumbler which although initially fun to play with becomes a real pain when trying to get access to a password in a hurry. And why should an address book look like a Rolodex when most users will never have used a Rolodex in their lives.

More significantly, skeuomorphism is at odds with responsive designs – all that lovely wood and leather is a problem since it usually relies on bitmap images not vector shapes. Windows 8 takes a non-skeuomorpic approach and its tile based minimalist look works well across a wide range of devices.

windows 8

Although we never referred to it using a skeuomorphic label, skeuomorphism has been popular in e-learning design. I’ve worked on many projects that have adopted a skeuomorphic approach and generally if you present designs that echo real world objects clients like them better than more minimalist designs. But have we taken skeuomorphism as far as it will go? Professionally I think we have but e-learning design newcomers – and especially those using rapid tools like Articulate Studio or Storyline will undoubtedly continue to favour the approach. Tom Kuhlmann regularly posts free resources that are skeuomorphic – the desktop, post-it notes, photo frames and the blackboard all being particular popular in rapid e-learning designs.

skeuomorphic e-learning

Kineo have recently been championing the responsive approach for e-learning design primarily because of the need to present learning content on a wide range of devices, but responsive designs are also inherently non-skeuomorphic (the need to re-flow content and interface elements such as buttons and data entry fields makes skeuomorphic tricky to implement). If other content developers follow this trend, and it’s very likely now that clients want their e-learning on all devices, then it’s likely we will be seeing fewer skeuomorphic designs across the board.

My next e-learning storyboard is definitely going to much more minimalist – provided I can persuade the client to ditch all that wood, metal and leather.

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