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What is a skeuomorph?

Greg Devine

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When you go to save a document on Word, which button do you press? There’re many ways to do it but chances are you select the floppy disk in the top corner of the screen. Ever consider that this is a little odd? Floppy disks have been obsolete for years now, yet we instinctively know that this is the save button.


This is called a skeuomorph—it’s when something new takes on the appearance of what it has replaced. Once you start looking, you’ll realise they’re everywhere.


Icons

Open up your smartphone. When you want to make a phone call, you tap on the app that looks like an old fashioned telephone receiver. When you go to send an email, you tap the app with a letter on it. Despite emails being fully digital and them not looking remotely similar to a physical letter, we still know this app’s function and what it replaced.


Skeuomorphs aren’t always physical, they can also be a sound. If you click on your smartphone’s camera app (which looks like a physical camera,) to take a photo, you may notice a shutter sound when you click the button, despite your phone’s camera having no physical shutter to open and close. Real cameras make this noise. However, it’s useful to have some sort of signal that your phone has captured an image. Otherwise, you’d just have to guess that the phone’s camera app worked, which, if you’re taking a posed picture (especially of a large group of people) or you wish to capture a specific moment in time, isn’t very helpful!


The term skeuomorph was coined by archaeologist H. Colley March in 1889, after he noticed that some ancient artefacts retained the design features of older, similar objects, even if these were no longer necessary. Take a look at classical architecture, such as Greek temples—these structures were once built of wood. When building with wood you, of course, need wooden beams. When building with stone, these beams aren’t necessary, yet they’re still incorporated in the stone’s design. Not only is this a homage to the previous way of doing things, it’s also aesthetically pleasing.


Skeuomorphs are a feature of electric cars. These vehicles don’t require cooling vents nor a grill at the front, yet most electric cars still incorporate these in their designs. We’re so used to seeing combustion engine cars with these features that it looks odd to remove them. 


Keyboard

There’s no reason for digital keyboards to make a sound when you type, yet, because they represent laptop keyboards and even typewriters (which were really quite noisy), our brains expect a sound to be there. This gives us the illusion that we’re still using a physical keyboard, despite it being on a screen. 


The notes section in our phones doesn’t need to look like lined paper or a sticky note. The lock screen doesn’t need to make the sound of a padlock, but most do. All these things help us locate and understand them quicker, because they bear a direct reference to their previous iteration.


The trend is changing though. We’re moving away from skeuomorphism and instead opting for more minimalist design. The original versions of iOS (the iPhone’s operating system) were incredibly skeuomorphic but newer versions have opted for a simpler appearance. We’re now aware of how to use smartphones, so the need for things to look familiar isn’t as strong. 


The Instagram logo used to be that of a Polaroid camera, which captured and printed images instantly; now, the logo is a much simpler representation of a Polaroid—to the point where, if you didn’t know what the logo used to be, you probably wouldn’t guess. Either way, it’s still clear that it represents Instagram.


Skeuomorphs divide opinion…for instance, is there still a need for this kind of design style, or should digital design move on and find its own innovations? Many people haven’t even used the objects skeuomorphs represent, so is there any point to them? Personally, I quite like them, but that might be because I’m not a huge fan of the new super-simplistic designs everyone seems to be using.


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