A skeuomorph, pronounced /ˈskjuːəmɔrf/ SKEW-ə-morf, or skeuomorphism (Greek: skeuos—vessel or tool, morphe—shape) is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original. Skeuomorphs may be deliberately employed to make the new look comfortably old and familiar, such as copper cladding on zinc pennies or computer printed postage with circular town name and cancellation lines.
Best examples: cigarettes with the paper around the filter printed to look like a cork filter, and the analog book embellishments in Kindle and iBook, like pages turning.
What a lot of skeuomorphs there are around nowadays – once you begin noticing them, they crop up everywhere. A skeuomorph, for those of you not design-savvy, is any derivative object that treats as ornamental elements that were functional in the original. One of my favourite examples is Anaglypta wallpaper, which I didn’t know – until I was told by the director of the National Gallery, no less – owes its raised ridging and epidermal feel to its origin in the tooled hides that adorned the walls of the wealthy in the 16th century. More modern skeuomorphs would include electric-light fitments designed to resemble candles (complete with artificial blobs of wax), and the half-timbered aspect of the Morris Traveller, that Anglo-Saxon hovel of mid- 20th-century automobiles.
It is with the advent of computerised technology that the contemporary obsession with the skeuomorph really gets going, though. I remember the first edition of Adobe Page- Maker, which I used in the late 1980s on my Mac Classic computer (remember them? So little and chunky, with the integrated CPU and VDU unit just like an early … television); when you booted it up you were treated to a graphic showing a medieval monk illuminating a manuscript. Other stand-out computer skeuomorphs include the envelope pictogram employed in numerous email programs, the stylised buff cardboard folders used on desktops (and those “desktops” themselves) – and even aural skeuomorphs, such as the shutter click my iPhone’s camera makes as it captures yet another blindingly evanescent image, or the odd whooshing noise it emits when it sends an email.
Soon our personalities will be purely ornamental, says Will Self.
Robots can be said to have their own culture precisely because they don’t need to copy our sociologisms in order to be social, although what they do in their own social realm may not easily map on to things we do in our social realm
I have installed Lion. The iCal interface is a horror. That is all.
Actually, it’s not all. Who thought this was a good idea? Who thought, “hey, it’s 2011, and there are still people in the world who are using computers but not using a calendar application on those computers, and what would make them use such an application is an interface mimicking leather and torn paper?” And how did that person get a job at Apple, and how does he or she still have that job?
— This article was originally written for Idiographic magazine. Pick up a copy atwww.idiographic.co.uk — How To Talk To Bolivian Hand Models At Parties If you want to clear the room at a party, I have a trick that’s more effective than cracking out the spoons and launching into a spirited rendition of ‘Knees up Mother Brown’: Strike up a conversation with that mysterious Bolivian hand-model about Skeuomorphs.
It doesn’t help when you try to explain the concept. Essentially, skeuomorphs are material metaphors. For this article, think of them as digital analogies. A skeuomorph is a design feature found on an imitation, pastiche or homage that was necessary only to the original. Often used for the sake of familiarity, they are details that have moved from function to form.
Traditionally the preserve of ancient Greek ceramicists and the architects of McMansions, skeuomorphs can increasingly be found in contemporary visual culture and specifically mobile application design. We’ve all seen the Apple adverts touting ‘realistic apps’ with their endearing true-to-life interfaces. Indeed, whenever I hear that quirky female anti-folk, I’m drawn to the TV, salivating like Pavlov’s dog with a cold. Well, it would appear Apple aren’t just showing off these nostalgic apps, they’re actively encouraging iPhone and iPad developers to produce them in a familiar style:
“Often, the more true to life your application looks and behaves, the easier it is for people to understand how it works and the more they enjoy using it. For example, people instantly know how to use the realistic address book that Contacts on iPad portrays.”— iOS Human Interface Guidelines
Why might they suggest this? These are big words from a company with that much influence, especially one with whose lead designer worships at the temple of the god of functionality: His Holiness, Deiter Rams. By throwing their weight behind skeuomorphic interfaces, Apple will either legitimise them, turning them into the de-facto standard for multi-touch devices, or (once again) risk appearing controlling and totalitarian and perhaps worse, harm their easy-to-use reputation. With 190 million iOS devices sold to date, it’s certainly an interesting debate, Bolivian hand-model or not.
Before we get to the nitty grity, it is probably a good idea to give an example of a truly skeuomorphic interface. The iPad’s Calendar app springs to mind. The first thing to notice is that it is presented much like the calendar hanging in my kitchen. Below each day there is space to make note of important engagements and at the top of the page we can see where the previous month has been ripped away. The whole thing is set in a distinctively leather(ette) looking surround and topped off with some delightful leather(ette) buttons. And a search menu. And a scrollbar. And by the way, you don’t rip away each month. It’s easy to see both sides of the argument for skeuomorphs. On the one hand they have a nostalgic quality that orientates even the most timid user, on the other they risk confusing them with broken metaphors like those pesky leather buttons hanging from that calendar.
The iPhone and iPad have been hailed as a form of revolution in user experience design, are said to have transformed personal and business computing and have been promoted as the future of publishing. How can these devices live up to the hyperbole when the core principle behind their interfaces visual language is rooted in the technology of the 19th and 20th centuries? To put it another way, how can we make these giant steps forward with one foot planted so firmly in the past? For example, it is questionable (at best) that the future of online publishing is seemingly presented in the form of a kitsch wooden book cabinet. A counter argument to that would be that these fundamental changes may be easier to accept when it comes with a familiar face.
I’d like to bravely address the issue by looking at an app from each side of the argument:
Hipstamatic is an app for the iPhone and was voted App of the Year by Apple. It allows users to take photos with their phone’s camera and have them look like a crappy picture made by a toy in 1982. That in itself is a skeuomorph, but for everybody’s sake I’m not going to go there. The main interface is the viewfinder for taking pictures and it is clear they’ve spent a lot of time and energy crafting a near perfect simulacrum of a Diana or Holga or something of that ilk. It really looks very pretty. The problem is that the iPhone’s screen is 4.5 x 2.5 inches but the space dedicated to seeing what you’re taking a picture of is 1 square inch. That means I have to squint and guess when shooting. The app has deliberately sullied my user experience. I get why they’ve done it. I own a Holga and it does have a tiny little viewfinder that acts as more of a distraction than a way of composing a picture, but that is because it had to be like that. Technology, production and cost all factored into it being that way. Hipstamatic don’t have that problem — they’re operating in the digital realm and have relative acres of space to run around in. They chose to stick so tightly to the skeuomorph that it became too literal and made the app harder to use.
By default, all iOS devices come with a calculator pre-installed. It is just lovely. There’s no hiding the fact that Apple’s Senior VP of Design, Jonathan Ive is a fan of Deiter Rams and Braun and this is clearly witnessed here. The app is almost identical in to the Braun ET66 calculator, right down to the colour of the ‘=’ button. It’s a skeuomorph and an homage that works particularly well. The calculator, to remain easy to use, has a fairly standardised layout meaning that physical products translate well onto screen as they are expected to be the same. The app doesn’t compromise the user’s experience by bending a metaphor to fit or sticking to it rigidly. Instead it enhances that experience by paying subtle respect to a great design that many people will be familiar with, whilst not confusing those who aren’t.
Skeuomorphs excel at creating a sense of nostalgia and familiarity. It might be this reason that they are deployed with such eagerness by modern software developers. They fill a void that may have previously been left empty: digital products that people care about. Today’s society is one saturated with personal computers, all too often seen as a nuisance or a necessity. Anything that brings emotion and acceptance into this can only be applauded.
Skeuomorphs can help the user as well. Tactile, ‘physical’ surfaces invite touch and sometimes a picture really can paint a thousand words. When it comes to identifying the function of a specific application, nothing works quicker than a well established object with a rich visual history. Where it starts to fall apart, it would appear, is when the metaphors break or when reality takes precedent over usability.
So next time you feel the urge to lead the crowd in a good old fashioned cockney sing-song, don’t break out the whistle, piano or indeed, the spoons. Instead show them the Knees up Mother Brown app, complete with realistic pub smoke and dart board. You’ll have that mysterious hand-model talking about skeuomorphs quicker than you can say ‘engaging and detailed graphical user interface’. — You can see my work at: www.anothertompetty.comFollow me on Twitter: @tompetty100 — About Idiographic: ‘All content for the first issue has been submitted or selected in response to one word: Broken. It’s deliberately vague, but acts as the conceptual glue providing subtle cohesion for a disparate collection of voices. From the surreal, dystopian paintings of Joshua Keyes, to essays on skeuomorphic design and Hu Jintao; in essence this first issue presents itself as a commentary on malfunction, and structures in decline; personal, technical, social & cultural.’
The steering wheel becomes a skeuomorph. It becomes a surveillance device, registering pressure to tell whether you have both hands firmly on the wheel, or if you’ve fallen asleep or are in distress. It becomes an entertainment console. It transforms and retracts into the dash to signal when you’ve shifted between user-controlled and autonomous modes. Its familiar presence soothes you through the transition. Eventually, you forget it was ever there at all.
A “complacency artifact” is an interaction interface skeuomorph. It was designed by some interaction guy who was rather out of his depth, and trying to comfort himself and the user by applying a cliched mode of interaction. The refrigerator needs a webpage; cellphones need big solid phone buttons, smartphone apps should act like newspapers — that sort of thing.