Seeking Skeuomorphs

Once I was a horse-drawn carriage

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.

I used to be wax and flame

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 used to be leather

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.“).

I used to be wood

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.

12 responses to “Seeking Skeuomorphs

  1. I wonder whether the skeuomorph (clumsy term!) is more analogy than metaphor. While the metaphor pretends to be something else, an analogy simply represents.

    In other words, how is the skeuomorph different from an analog?

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  3. The image of a “folder” on a “desktop” is one we now see every day. And it’s useful: my wife remarks that she finally understood what “folders” were when she first saw the image of a paper flying from one folder-icon to another.
    As for e-book page numbers coordinated to the printed version, however, I’m agin ’em. I like the feeling of accomplishment when, with my screen set to extra-large type and the e-reader itself counting the pages, I polish off the latest 2,417-page book from my reading list.

    • I didn’t know that about pagination and e-books. The equivalent of a high school student composing in 24 pt. type to write a 5-page paper?

  4. E-readers seem to vary greatly in the way they treat pagination. Recently I helped create an electronic version of Frances Grote’s new novel FIRE IN THE HENHOUSE; the paperback is already published, and soon the e-version will be available as well. Opening the epub file on my desktop computer, using Adobe Digital Editions, I get 509 pages, only a little more than in the paperback. Translated quickly to a Mobi version and opened in the Mobipocket Reader, the book becomes 2,787 pages! Think of this as a new way to build confidence in young students. “Mary, you read 8,000 pages this week! You’re definitely ready for third grade!”

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  7. Ann, I think about this post all the time. And I regularly send it to people. We click on a icon of an old-fashioned floppy disk to save! My three-year-old associates an icon of a book with his Youtube “Favorites” on my Iphone – talk about modern parenting. And I just spotted this one for you in Orlando: Disney makes its busses look old-fashioned 🙂

    • Kalyani, The Disney bus is great. A re-interpretation of an old-fashioned bus, which also, with those slightly slanted windows, looks a bit like a cartoon character. The photograph is brilliant in capturing that quality.

      Thanks for sending. Keep me updated on the 3-yr. old’s view of all this. and keep hunting those skeuomorphs.

      I plan to be back to more regular blogging soon.

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    • Not only do iPhones make a shutter noise (as many digital cameras do), a shutter opens and closes as you click. It would be funny if you could see the aperture “adjust” to various lighting conditions. I’d say Apple’s choice of skeuomorphs, presented with just the right mix of sincerity and irony, is a major aspect of their design genius.

  9. Very interesting, and no surprise that the topic should hold up for two years! In Bill’s work as an industrial designer, they speak of “product semantics” to refer tangentially to the same idea. I can’t help but think that skeuomorphs, if I understand them correctly, are nostalgic references to a past we think of as better, more peaceful and wholesome than the present.

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