For some time, I’ve been musing about how often new technologies hold some vestige of the technology they’re usurping. Sometimes, the form of a new technology evolves, seemingly naturally, from its predecessor — think of the horsedrawn carriage becoming horseless carriage becoming auto-mobile (still with a “body by Fisher,” coachworkers turned auto body designers.) Sometimes, the new takes cues from the old to gain cachet and legitimacy from what it’s replacing — think of old-fashioned movie theaters, the screen on a proscenium stage, a thick velvet curtain opening and closing between acts. And sometimes the new masquerades as the old as a kind of reassurance that change is not all that radical or scary — the wolf in sheep’s clothing approach — electric light sneaking into the house in the form of candelabras and candle-shaped wall sconces.
What I didn’t know — until yesterday — was this phenomenon has a name.
Pronounced SKEW-o-morph, the word is defined as “a design feature copied from a similar artifact, even when not functionally necessary.” Examples include copper cladding on a zinc penny, the black and white “cowhide” cover of a standard composition book, the reassuring shutter snap on a digital camera.
I discovered this most useful term in Joshua Brustein’s essay “Why Innovation Doffs an Old Hat” in Sunday’s New York Times. Brustein’s essay was prompted by Amazon’s announcement that its e-reader Kindle will now include page numbers corresponding to the pages of physical books. While Brustein acknowledges some practical advantages to the Kindle’s retro-fit (for book clubs who want readers — paper or cyber — to be on the same page, as it were), he points out the absurdity as well. “E-books, by definition, do not have pages.” In other words, if good design is defined as “form follows function” then page numbers on e-books are as fussy and antiquated as an anti-macassar on a chair back. But if good design helps create a bridge between old and new, then the page numbers make sense. They conform, says designer Adam Greenfield “to the emotional expectations of what a book is.”
Superficial illusion or meaningful allusion? In an age of fast-paced technological change, such is the designer’s dilemma. Writes Brustein:
Designers in all fields are regularly confronted with versions of this choice: whether to incorporate cues to keep people grounded in what has come before, or scrap convention completely.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. The word skeuomorph was coined by 19th century archaeologists to describe ancient architects’ allusion to wooden construction techniques in stone temples (see the Wikipedia entry on “skeumorph.“).
And at the turn of the 20th century, both the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Machine Aesthetic developed in reaction against what one might call “skeumorphic abuse” — manufacturers’ use of new technology to mass produce cheap imitations of traditional handicrafts, transferring the complex patterns of Oriental rugs to sheets of linoleum, for example.
Some skeuomorphs work. Others are clunky and awkward. (See my post of several months back on digital icons, which I now know to call “skeumorphic interfaces”.) Successful skeuomorphs don’t just “keep people grounded,” though, they bridge the transition from the comfortable familiar to the challenging unknown. In other words, a metaphor. Writers aren’t the only ones skilled at making those connections. The best and most useful designs often depend on creating clear metaphors that make a new technology not just less threatening but also more accessible. Without that connection, the new might be completely incomprehensible. The point of a metaphor, in design as well as literature, is to help us leap the chasm.
Much more than “superfluous references to the past,” as Brustein calls them, these bridges serve an important value. As UCLA anthropologist Nicholas Gessler writes:
Skeuomorphs are material metaphors. They are informational attributes of artifacts which help us find a path through unfamiliar territory. They help us map the new onto an existing cognitive structure, and in so doing, give us a starting point from which we may evolve additional alternative solutions. They provide us with “a path” instead of “no path” at all, but as scientists we are ultimately interested in an optimal paths well suited to the problem at hand, if not simply the best solution possible.
Paradoxically, it’s the looking back, the incorporating the old in the new, that keeps us moving forward.
The time comes, of course, when the new becomes familiar, the original allusion is forgotten, and the metaphor itself dies. Already I’ve heard tales of design students marveling that the words “cut and paste” once referred to literal scissors and glue. And how often do we think of speedy, hoofed creatures when we talk about a car’s horsepower? Those words linger as the last vestige of technologies now long forgotten.
So now I’m collecting nominations — what skeuomorphs do you notice in your daily life? When do they work? When do they seem “superfluous”? In a future posting, I’ll list the best and worst of what readers have found.