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.
Arguments in favour of skeuomorphism include that it makes devices easier to use for people familiar with the older devices that are imitated. Arguments against include that it takes up more screen space on digital devices, and may be more complex and more difficult to learn than a straightforward interface without it.
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 may be deliberately employed to make a new look more familiar and comfortable, or may be the result of cultural influences and norms on the designer. They may be artistic expression on the part of the designer. 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.
Many features of wooden buildings were repeated in stone by the Ancient Greeks when they transitioned from wood to masonry construction. Decorative stone features in the Doric order of classical architecture in Greek temples such as triglyphs, mutules, guttae, and modillions derived from true structural and or functional features of the early wooden temples. The triglyph and guttae are seen as recreating in stone functional features of the wooden temples that preceded them, respectively the carved beam-ends and six wooden pegs driven in to secure the beam in place.
Historically, high-status items such as the Minoans' elaborate and expensive silver cups were recreated for a wider market using pottery, a cheaper material. The exchange of shapes between metalwork and ceramics, usually in that direction, is near-constant in the history of the decorative arts. Sometimes pellets of clay evoke the rivets of the metal originals.
There is also evidence of skeuomorphism in material transitions. Leather and pottery often carry over features 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. Another well-known skeuomorph is the plastic Adirondack chair.
Many computer programs have a skeuomorphic graphical user interface that emulates the aesthetics of physical objects. Examples include a digital contact list resembling a rolodex,  and the 1998 RealThings package. A more extreme example is found in some music synthesis and audio processing software packages, which closely emulate physical musical instruments and audio equipment complete with buttons and dials.
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. Another example is the swiping hand gesture for turning the "pages" or screens of a tablet.
Apple Inc., while under the direction of Steve Jobs, was known for its wide usage of skeuomorphic designs in various applications. This changed after Jobs' death when Scott Forstall, described as "the most vocal and high-ranking proponent of the visual design style favored by Mr. Jobs", resigned. The Apple designer Jonathan Ive 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". With the announcement of iOS 7 at WWDC in 2013, Apple officially shifted from skeuomorphism to a more simplified design, thus beginning the so-called "death of skeuomorphism."
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 mostly cultural and learned. Once a process is learned and adopted in a society, it develops persistence. Proposals for change, especially radical change, often result in debate between proponents and opponents. 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.
Smartphone app with an old mechanical appearance
Digital keypad of an electronic safe, on a circular escutcheon mimicking a mechanical combination dial
- 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.
- Sharp, Helen; Rogers, Yvonne; Preece, Jenny (2007). Interaction Design: Beyond Human–Computer Interaction (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. p. 62.
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