Visual designers walk a careful line between showing people what they expect, and showing them something that has never been done before. When digital products were in their infancy, only a small amount of people understood what the tools could even do.

So how were user interfaces designed before people even knew how computers would be used? By empathizing with the average person. Designers found that the best way to teach people was to mimic the function of analog things on a computer screen. Folder and trashcan icons function in the same way they do outside a computer; you put documents inside a folder, and you throw stuff away in a trashcan.

Over time, this trend has continued, and we saw companies such as Apple move heavily into the skeuomorphic design trend with analog cues such as their notebook app featuring leather stitching and line rules just like the real world.

Fast forward to 2013. In much of America it’s pretty much taken for granted that people under a certain age are fluent in the visual language of computers. As a result, designers have recognized that users are not so primitive as to only mimic analog objects; they are creating their own unique styles.

Starting around 2010, a movement was started and styles began to shift away from skeuomorphic design. People no longer need so many literal cues to understand user interfaces and too much styling got in the way of users accomplishing their goals. Good content and simplistic design allow the user to see what they need to see and encourage action.

However, some designers have taken it too far. Moving to a completely minimal design devoid of any styling cues is creating more problems than it solves. Many designers are stripping back too many visual signals in favor of overly clean design. This leads to the question, are designers losing empathy? With interface and web design in such high demand, anyone can buy Photoshop and eventually learn to put together a decent layout. What separates the good designers from the mediocre designers though, is the ability to empathize with their users.

Empathy starts to influence design before a project even starts. Everyone on a project team needs to know exactly who the target user is. This part is usually not a problem as most people have the best of intentions; the problem comes when designers decide to forego this empathy in favor of visually pleasing design.

Apple’s recent release of iOS7 has been met with all sorts of controversy. The skeuomorphic look is dated, but Apple seemingly decided to change their visual look without really questioning what the value would be to the user. Sometimes the best-looking design is not the most effective. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and 99 times out of 100, the designer who created an interface is not the intended user.