Thursday, 13 June 2013

What is skeuomorphism?

Skeuomorphs: iPhone voice memo app, electric candle, Windows recycle bin app; vintage Ford car with fake wood trim

Apple announced it would scrap the "traditional" look of its mobile apps which mimicked real world objects. This is "skeuomorphic" design.

Steve Jobs believed computers should be so simple to use that a complete novice could master them based on instinct alone.

He championed a style of design in which digital elements resembled real world objects that anyone could recognise.

Behind the glass screen lay a "desktop" on which users could arrange "documents", or drop them into the "trash" - an icon in the shape of a bin.

The idea is known as "skeuomorphism". It predates Jobs and persists to this day.

The envelope is the de-facto symbol for email and SMS messages. It offers a nice distinction between read and unread - they become opened and unopened envelopes.


A photograph of the "skeuomorph" dictionary entry
Skeuomorph (n)
  • An object or feature copying the design of a similar artefact in another material (OED)
  • a functional item redesigned as something decorative (Collins)
  • an ornament or design representing a utensil or implement (Merriam-Webster)

If you're using certain Android Samsung phones your email icon is even more atavistic - an envelope with a red wax seal. But it's got an @ pressed into it - a weird mish-mash of old and new.

On Windows 7, the Sticky Notes program resembles electronic Post-it notes. Write on them and you get a slightly handwriting-esque font called Segoe. Unlike the real thing, they don't lose their stickiness and fall off your desktop.

You cut and paste on Microsoft programs like Word and Outlook using scissors and a clipboard.

The "show desktop" icon on Windows XP looks like a leather-bound desk blotter. Not just an old-world item, but something that hasn't been on the typical desk for a long, long time.

Apple's notepad looks like yellow jotting paper, contacts are stored in a binder, and its golden compass sits on a wooden base.

It's not just the appearance of icons or just the look of an app, some programs like calendars and contacts books actually behave a little bit like their old-world equivalents.

A tablet computer displaying Windows 8
Windows 8 largely avoids skeuomorphs but retains a postal symbol for email

Now, however, all that is set to change. Skeuomorphism has fallen out of favour in recent years, and is almost regarded as a dirty word by many in the design community.

Apple this week announced a radical revision to the approach at its annual developer conference in California and its new mobile operating system will ditch real world visual metaphors in favour of a stripped-back minimalist approach.

"No virtual cows were harmed in the making of this one," quipped Craig Federighi, head of the new project, in deference to the critics of its leather-trimmed calendar app.

The podcast app recently lost its reel-to-reel tape deck look, a reference which would have been lost on many younger smartphone users.

Not everyone will be pleased with the decision though, and some regret the decline of the skeuomorph.

More on design features from the web

  • Clive Thompson, for Wired, says we must wean ourselves off these "defunct models" or miss out on digital tools harnessing what IT does best
  • Aisha Harris, for Slate, argues that skeuomorphs are "one of the more pleasant little tricks we use to help make make sense of something new"
  • Author of tech-culture site The Machine Starts, Chris Baraniuk, says the term "skeuomorph" is misused, when people mean "visual metaphor"

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