S is for skeuomorphism

Skeuomorphism increases your understanding of the product.

skeuFriend Dan wrote to me about the word skeuomorphism, which was not in my vocabulary. But I didn’t see the email right away since it ended up in my spam folder, because “It’s written in a different language than your messages typically use.”

So what IS it? The Technopedia explains:

Skeuomorphism refers to a design principle in which design cues are taken from the physical world. This term is most frequently applied to user interfaces (UIs), where much of the design has traditionally aimed to recall the real world – such as the use of folder and files images for computer filing systems, or a letter symbol for email – probably to make computers feel more familiar to users.

Yeah, sure. I hadn’t thought about it, but that was a really ingenious idea.

However, this approach is increasingly being criticized for its lack of ingenuity and its failure to pioneer designs that truly harness a computer’s superior capabilities, rather than forcing it to merely mimic the behavior of a physical object.

Wait, what?

Skeuomorphism has increasingly come under fire, largely because many of the nostalgic elements it attempts to portray – such as calendars, day planners, address books, etc. – are almost entirely foreign to younger generations of users. In addition, critics of skeuomorphism point to this reliance of physical objects in design as an impediment to making more useful designs.

In fact, skeuomorphism in computers is already starting to die.

But, but, but, without those cues, I’d NEVER figure out any devices. It’s hard enough for me, as it is. I agree with Matt Webb, operator of BERG, “a design company that makes electronic devices incorporating human faces and emotions”:

“People that criticise skeuomorphism say it’s pointless, but I say it isn’t. It increases your understanding of the product. Technology is getting so complicated that we’re going to have to find ways for people to understand what it can do without having to spell it out.”

Or as friend Dan put it, ” It’s not so much fake as a bridge between two things or systems.”

The term long predates computers. From The Economist:

The term skeuomorph was originally coined in 1889 to refer to an ornamental design derived from the structure of an earlier form of a particular object… Examples would be car seats made of plastic, but textured to imitate leather; plastic spoons moulded with patterns to provide an echo of engraved silver; or imitation wood-grain printed on furniture or flooring.

ABC Wednesday – Round 16

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

20 thoughts on “S is for skeuomorphism”

  1. Thank you for reminding me of this word. I once did an episode about this on a now defunct podcast, yet I can never remember the word. And that’s the point of skeuomorphism: Helping us remember.

    When iOS dropped skeuomorphism, some of the App icons were obvious, but to this day I have trouble finding some Apps and have to resort to search because I don’t recognise them. Fortunately, the MacOS has been slower to abandon such icons.

    What gets me, though, is the ageist logic: Young people can’t relate to the icons, so, therefore, older people must abandon them. WHY?! Sure, young people may not know what a Rolodex was, as your link says, but, so what? We all—young and old—remember pictorially, so if we see “bookshelves with wood veneers” or something else doesn’t really matter: We’ll remember what we first see. How many of us recognise the hidden messages in the logos of major corporations (like FedEx, for example)? We just remember what it represents.

    Point is, whether we’re young or old, what a skeuomorph refers to is irrelevent. The ONLY question should be, does it help us find the bloody App?!

  2. The universal Save icon is an image of a floppy disk; already I’m seeing people wondering what that thing is and why it means Save.

  3. This is not good news! Sometimes I think computer designers change just for the sake of change. If it ain’t broken…….. So what if the younger generations don’t relate to address books, calendars and such. We all know they aren’t very organized anyway! Perhaps that’s why? 🙂

  4. It needs to stay the same for me!! My 18 month old niece picked up her moms phone the other day and texting someone (on purpose). Everything is moving so fast!!!

  5. Oh shoot – I need all the help I can get with my short term memory! Someone is undermining us old folks…..

  6. Things or designs are made for us – humans! They are not made to benefit the computer, or design, or anything else. There’s something wrong with that picture (read: thinking)!

  7. I am glad there is such a thing as skeuomorphism! That means I can find my way on the computer easily now, but how do you pronounce this word?

    Wil, ABCW Team

  8. This depresses me. So just because address books, etc. are not used by the young, the use of skeuomorphisms should be tossed aside! Excuse me…when an address is needed by my kids and grandkids, guess where it resides? In MY actual address book. When computers and phones and other electronic devices crash, where will these nuggets come from. Me! Oh, dear, I best stop, I feel myself tensing. Thanks for the new word- it’s a keeper!

  9. Interesting word and explanation Roger, I like it!
    The technology world does change too fast for we ‘silver surfers’, thankfully I’ve always got a daughter on hand to help me when required.

    Good post !

    Best wishes,
    ABCW team.

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