A skeuomorph // is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues from structures that were necessary in the original. Examples include pottery embellished with imitation rivets reminiscent of similar pots made of metal and a software calendar that imitates the appearance of binding on a paper desk calendar. It contrasts with flat designs.
Definition and purpose
The term 'skeuomorph' is compounded from the Greek: skéuos, σκεῦος (container or tool), and morphḗ, μορφή (shape). It has been applied to material objects since 1890 and is now also used to describe computer and mobile interfaces.
A similar alternative definition of skeuomorph is "a physical ornament or design on an object made to resemble another material or technique". This definition is broader in scope, as it can be applied to design elements that still serve the same function as they did in a previous design.
Skeuomorphs are deliberately employed to make the new look comfortably old and familiar, or are simply habits too deeply ingrained to wash away. Donald Norman, an academic in the fields of design, usability, and cognitive science, describes cultural constraints, interactions with the system in question that are learned only through culture, that give rise to skeuomorphism. Norman also popularized perceived affordances, where the user can tell what an object provides or does based on its appearance, which skeuomorphism can make easy.
The concept of skeuomorphism overlaps with other design concepts. Mimesis is an imitation, coming directly from the Greek. Archetype is the original idea or model that is emulated, where the emulations can be skeuomorphic. Skeuomorphism is parallel to, but different from, path dependence in technology, where an element's functional behavior is maintained when the reasons for its design no longer exist.
Historically, high-status items such as the Minoans' very elaborate and rare silver cups were often recreated for the mass market using ceramics, a cheaper material, allowing the common person to have the appearance of elite status. In certain cases, efforts were made to recreate the rivets in the metal originals by adding pellets of clay to the pottery version. There is also evidence of skeuomorphism in material transitions. Leather and clay pottery often carry over traits from the wooden counterparts of previous generations. Clay pottery has also been found bearing rope-shaped protrusions, pointing to craftsmen seeking familiar shapes and processes while working with new materials. In this context, skeuomorphs exist as traits sought in other objects, either for their social desirability or psychological comforts.
In the modern era, cheaper plastic items often attempt to mimic more expensive wooden and metal products, though they are only skeuomorphic if new ornamentation references the original functionality, such as molded screw heads in molded plastic items.
Many computer programs have a skeuomorphic graphical user interface that emulates the aesthetics of physical objects. An example of this trend was the 1998 RealThings package. A more extreme example is found in many music synthesis and audio processing software packages, which closely emulate physical musical instruments and audio equipment. Functional input controls like knobs, buttons, switches, and sliders are often careful duplicates of those found on the original physical device being emulated. Some software even includes graphical elements of the original design that serve no user interface function, such as handles, screws, and ventilation holes.
Even systems that do not employ literal images of some physical object frequently contain skeuomorphic elements, such as slider bars that emulate linear potentiometers and tabs that behave like tabbed file folders. Skeuomorphs need not be visual. The shutter-click sound emitted by most camera phones when taking a picture is an auditory skeuomorph: it does not come from a mechanical shutter, which camera phones lack, but from a sound file in the phone's operating system. Another example is the swiping hand gesture for turning the "pages" or screens of a tablet.
Arguments in favor
An argument in favor of skeuomorphic design is that it makes it easier for those familiar with the original device to use the digital emulation by making certain affordances stronger. Interactions with computer devices are purely cultural and learned, so once a process is learned in society, it is difficult to remove. Norman describes this process as a form of cultural heritage.
The arguments against skeuomorphic design are that skeuomorphic interface elements use metaphors that are more difficult to operate and take up more screen space than standard interface elements, that this breaks operating system interface design standards, that it causes an inconsistent look and feel between applications, that skeuomorphic interface elements rarely incorporate numeric input or feedback for accurately setting a value, that many users may have no experience with the original device being emulated, that skeuomorphic design can increase cognitive load with visual noise that after a few uses gives little or no value to the user, and that skeuomorphic design limits creativity by grounding the experience to physical counterparts.
Apple Inc., while under the direction of Steve Jobs, was known for its wide usage of skeuomorphic designs in various applications. The debate over the merits of Apple's extensive use of skeuomorphism became the subject of substantial media attention in October 2012, a year after Jobs' death, largely as the result of the reported resignation of Scott Forstall, described as "the most vocal and high-ranking proponent of the visual design style favored by Mr. Jobs". Apple designer Jonathan Ive, who took over some of Forstall's responsibilities and had "made his distaste for the visual ornamentation in Apple’s mobile software known within the company", was expected to move the company toward a less skeuomorphic aesthetic. With the announcement of iOS 7 at WWDC, Apple officially shifted from skeuomorphism to a more simplified design, thus beginning the so-called "death of skeuomorphism."
Smartphone app with the appearance of an old mechanical machine
Digital keypad of an electronic safe, on a circular escutcheon mimicking a mechanical combination dial
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- Skeuomorphs in popular culture
- Trompe-l'œil, a 2D artwork using realistic optical illusions to simulate three dimensions.
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The issue is two-fold: first, that traditional visual metaphors no longer translate to modern users; and second, that excessive digital imitation of real-world objects creates confusion among users.
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