Inspirational UIs from the Golden Age of Skeuomorphism

Skeuomorphism, or making UIs look like real-world objects, was a design esthetic that started in 2007 with the iPhone, and reached its peak with the iPad, producing UIs that were masterpieces. Till then, UIs were only functional, helping you perform a task, but skeuomorphism took it to another level. I had trouble thinking of them as mere UIs!

Skeuomorphism manifested itself best on the iPad [1], which became a book when you opened iBooks:

Even reading a web page was a cut above reading one on a computer. Admittedly, iA is an exceptionally well-designed site:

A newspaper on the iPad was clearer, crisper and much higher-resolution, a superior newspaper than the newspaper:

This is a screenshot from the Guardian Eyewitness app. This is not a JPEG, but the actual UI! This app was about photojournalism, and it let the content speak for itself:

Designers didn’t cram every inch of screen space with content:

Even a lock screen could be a masterpiece (this was Dropbox’s lock screen, not the iPad’s):

This made it feel spacious, relaxed and luxurious, worlds better than:

Look at this gorgeous compass, better than any real compass I had. Skeuomorphism at its best was the best of both worlds — physical and digital:

The background screen (launch image) of this app was as good as the actual UI of many PC apps. Look at the understated texture and subtle branding:

Likewise for the empty state of this app:

Skeuomorphism on iCloud.com was excellent, too:

Design, like other fields, is prone to fashion. How, then, do you tell whether a design esthetic is merely in vogue or actually good? The answer is: with the passage of time. Looking back on these UIs after 8 years, I expected them to look good but dated. But they’re every bit as clean, subtle, tastesful, fresh and powerful as they were in their glory days.


[1] Why? Unlike a phone, the screen was big enough for skeuomorphism to shine. The iPad didn’t have the legacy of the PC, and prioritised the quality of the interaction over other factors like power, flexibility and backward-compatibility. You touched it with your fingers rather than used an indirection like a mouse. The iPad became the app it was running.