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If you watched Apple’s annual WWDC event this week, or have been even casually observing some of the announcements the company made, you may have noticed something new — something a bit jarring. Yesterday saw the introduction of a whole new version of macOS, moving beyond the X designation into a new version number: 11. macOS 11 (known as Big Sur) boasts loads of new features that bring it closer to parity with its iOS counterparts on iPhones and iPads, but one area where there seems to be a divergent path is… its icon and user interface design. You can blame that on a little something called Neumorphism, and like or hate it, it’s the next wave in UI design. Neumorphism has been making the rounds on Design Twitter for a little while now, and most of the response to it has been negative. There are plenty of valid criticisms out there, primarily that early design experiments were focused on design differentiation and not actual usability. But if you look beyond specific implementations we’ve seen thus far — usually created by designers whose focus is formalism as opposed to usability — to the base concepts, there is something that’s actually quite exciting and sustainable; something that has yet to be fully realized. When you boil it down, neumorphism is a focus on how light moves in three-dimensional space. Its predecessor, skeumorphism, created realism in digital interfaces by simulating textures on surfaces like felt on a poker table or the brushed metal of a tape recorder. An ancillary — though under-developed — aspect of this design style was lighting that interacted realistically with the materials that were being represented; this is why shadows and darkness were so prevalent in those early interfaces. When you boil it down, neumorphism is a focus on how light moves in three-dimensional space. But the lighting and texture simulations being done for those designs were still relatively simple: which objects are shiny and which are rough? Which objects are transparent and which opaque? These were ultimately utilitarian and somewhat arbitrary choices. What sets neumorphism apart from its progenitor is that the focus is on the light itself and how it interacts with a variety of objects in a purely digital space. The light simulations in neumorphism are more complex, and are focused on how light from one object could affect another, or the function of the object itself. Remember this little dude?Apple The earliest examples that drew so much criticism often show white UI elements on white backdrops, with the differentiation created solely by the interaction of the elements with light, the reflection of the light from the top and shadows cast from the bottom, suggesting they were raised from the surface. There are usability improvements that would need to happen before this style could be widely applied, but it demonstrated something that skeumorphism had not — a concept of a global lighting schema that transcends one individual object and dictates how multiple objects interact in one world. Going flat Abandoning skeumorphism in favor of flat design in the early 2010s allowed for a much wider and more expressive toolkit of colors and design elements. Untethered from a basis in physical objects, objects could become any color and space could be better used. By removing unnecessary embellishments that only existed to indicate an element was intended to represent a three-dimensional object, designers were free to explore. During the near-decade reign of flat design a lot of important developments were made in the realms of usability and user experience. » Read More
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