Neumorphism is the elephant in the UI designers room

Neumorphism is the elephant in the UI designers room

The importance of a formal definition for a new concept in UI design.

Photo by Inbetween Architects on Unsplash

Once upon a time, an educated eye detected a new trend in UI designs, particularly, in Dribbble . It was a conceptual proposition, not an actual design for a customer or an app. Trying to explain the characteristics of this new trend, a new word emerged:neumorphism.

Several articles, stories, and posts have been published around the first educated eye that point to it — Michal Malewicz . The texts are about how-tos or tutorials to reproduce the style in design, to criticize or correct the lack of accessibility, or to debate the scope of the trend or style.

Everybody in UI/UX design has seen neumorphism—and even used it—but nobody has formally defined it. This article is about the elephant in the room.

The lack of a definition for neumorphism

No precise definition was offered, only a demonstrative one: this is neumorphism, look at the influence of skeuomorphism with a fresh and modern approach.

But there was no intentional definition — what makes a design neumorphic?

For that kind of definition we usually specify the genus or family which the word defined belongs, and the differentia to the other objects within the genus .

The classic example is this: A triangle is a plane figure that has 3 straight bounding sides. The genus or the set which the triangle belongs is “plane figures”. What makes it different to other plane figures is that “has 3 straight bounding sides”.

So, what is the genus of neumorphism? A style? A look? A framework? A library? A design? I think it is clear that we are talking about a style. Or to be more specific, a UI design style.

Ergo, in a definition of neumorphism, the genus is a UI design style. We have the first part.

The next question is “what is different in this UI design style?”. That’s where the emergence of a new concept in any knowledge field becomes interesting and relevant.

And this is also why it’s important a written definition. In design, as in any visual art, it is too easy to define something just pointing to it. Examples — and their descriptions — are not definitions. I love design and visual arts, but this is one of their limits.

(The lack of an intensional definition is the reason why this article doesn’t use illustrative examples or pictures — except for the elephant. I’m trying to avoid the temptation to look at an example of the concept instead of understanding the concept. If you are late to the topic of neumorphism, follow the links .)

The analogy to surrealism

As I said before , new concepts are as important as necessary, even if they are not well defined at the beginning, or they fail to encompass reality at the end. Concepts construct knowledge and develop understanding and learning .

The concept of neumorphism ignited a discussion about issues related to UI design and new trends that were resting in our minds and needed some trigger to be expressed.

The specific UI design designed as neumorphism can have variations and different points of view. It doesn’t have to be well defined or with a determined technique.

The same happens in fine arts. Surrealism is a good example. Even when it was defined through a “manifesto” by André Breton, we can find surrealist art before it was defined as such. And sometimes it is difficult to establish if a piece of art is surrealist, dadaist, or if it just has an influence.

For André Breton could be easy to point to written examples or describe paintings. But it's not. He wrote definitions:

“Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.” *

This is important because surrealism is not about writing or painting dreams but writing or painting as if you were dreaming, without control, for no reason, automatically. In other words, you can’t define a surrealist painting by watching it, you have to know how it was painted. You need context and intention.

Why do we need a concept?

The most important approach to neumorphism is as a concept.

  • Concepts are maps of reality.
  • Concepts are very important in the development of knowledge.
  • Concepts help to have a common language among professionals.
  • Concepts try to clarify the past and point to the future.
  • Concepts can be organized hierarchically, allowing categories and classification.
  • Concepts allow comparison and reflection.
  • Concepts generate discussion.

New concepts emerge when there is something new in reality and we don’t have a word to define it. Like any map, a concept is not the reality either pretends to be it. In the era of satellite photography we perhaps forget that a map is constantly updating, not just because reality changes but because we always find differences.

A hypothesis is a concept to be proof. A system is a concept expressed in its intrinsic networks and relations. A framework is a concept in the aim to help us go through the unknown — as a tourist map.

In Aristotelian logic, a concept has a definitional structure and a list of features. But in Wittgenstein a concept is a prototype with specific properties that members of a class tend to possess — a family resemblance . A concept doesn’t have to be deterministic but prototypical.

The “user experience” is now a concept. It has a special meaning in a special field. It has several definitions depending on who is defining, but the general idea is the same for everyone. The concept of UX helps us to map humans, emotions, attitudes, affections, products, systems, services, and their interactions.

There are big and complex concepts like “surrealism” or “user experience”. Not all concepts are the same in magnitude or entanglement.

“Skeuomorphism” is a simpler and smaller concept. Even so, we can see the recent UI made by a designer, for example, and tell her or tell him “it looks s little skeuomorphic”, and s/he is going to understand what we mean. We can even argue if that is bad or good for the user.

So, what is neumorphism?

Let’s try to define neumorphism. Like any definition of a new concept, it’s a working hypothesis.

1.As we have established, neumorphism is a UI design style.

2. In UI design we have a genealogy of styles. Design has fluctuated between skeuomorphism, abstraction, minimalism, and functionalism.

3. Even in the last three, there is a tendency to use a previous reference — for practical, functional, and convenient reasons.

4. There is no “pure design” or design from “zero” because design needs to be understood since we start using it. Design needs previous reference. Art is different: it can propose something new to the grade and risk being unintelligible.

5. Newness in design is aesthetic but it’s also a way to call for attention. Getting attention is important for a new product but it’s also important to trigger consciousness and learning for users.

6. Designers and people involved in UX design are always looking for new forms of presentation, but as soon as we see a new kind of UI we immediately find the previous reference or references. When we are too involved in something, we tend to see new things and think “it looks like X”, or “it looks like a mix of X and Y”.

7. If some person involved in UX and UI design calls something “new”, it is because s/he didn’t find an obvious previous reference. If in addition to calling it new, s/he requires a new word, it’s because s/he is dealing with something new in reality — in some grade, at least.

8. According to Michal Malewicz, neumorphism is a style that uses or resembles part of skeuomorphism but with a more fresh and modern look. Alexander Plyuto , the designer in Dribbble, called his proposition “ skeuomorph ”, perhaps because of the texture reference. But the resemblance to skeuomorphism is not clear in all the examples by Plyuto or Malewicz. What is visible in all is the soft texture.

“The main benefit of this style is the “freshness” (at least for as long as it lasts). It brings that “new feel” to the interface and make it stand out. It can also be mixed with other styles, so it’s not overwhelmingly “soft extruded plastic” everywhere.”*

The fact that it looks “soft extruded plastic” doesn’t make it skeuomorphic. A card in Material Design looks like paper or cardboard but that doesn’t make Material Design skeuomorphic.

9. Ergo, the resemblance to skeuomorphism is functional, not aesthetical, or technical. Skeuomorphism is not relevant in neumorphism.

10. If the main and only characteristic of neumorphism was the “soft extruded plastic” look, we were in front of a minor style. But no. There is more.

11. Don’t forget the “new feel” part of the description. And, more important, let’s rescue the description of the technique and intention in neumorphism that Michal Malewicz establishes in one of his recent articles about it.

“It’s like building a UI from play-doh. It forms itself nicely, is soft to the touch (figuratively) and is supposedly non-toxic, but you shouldn’t eat it.[…] We should smile a bit more, play with our play-doh and sometimes — just sometimes — twist the concept of the interface towards something new.”*

12. The essence of neumorphism is more in the newness than in the morph. Its essence is more in the intention and the technique. And by technique I mean the process, the how, the context and intension, not the step-by-step tutorial.

13. André Breton defined surrealism as an intention and a way to create. Neumorphism can be defined in the same terms — for logical reasons, not because it can be compared to surrealism as an art.

14. New, playful, and fresh are subjective. But so “psychic automatism” or “dictation of thought”. To recognize new styles in design or art you usually need an educated eye that knows the context and intention.

15. Putting it all together:

Neumorphism is any UI design style that playfully proposes and brings freshness and new feel to the interface twisting the concept of the interface itself towards something new or different to previous references.

A simple but important concept

Like any other field, first is a new object and its application, then, the experts point to it, define it, and build a concept or a theory.

The relationship between humans and electronic interfaces was born in the pragmatics of engineering and software design. In the process, some experts were defining and building the new concepts that became human-computer interaction, usability, user-centered design, user experience, affordances, stages of action, etc.

Neumorphism might be a small or simple concept and not a big or a complex one — at the moment is just about UI design styles. But it deserves the denomination as a concept and to have an intensional definition and not just a demonstrative or descriptive one.

UI design — and perhaps UX design — needs playfully propositions, freshness, new feels, twisting the concept of the interface, and looking towards something new or different from previous references.

UI design needs neumorphism.