A skeuomorph is something that’s deliberately designed to resemble something else. The word skeuomorph, though still generally pretty obscure, has probably been used more in the last two years than in all the time in history before then.
It’s not that skeuomorphism is new. The most relatable example of an old skeuomorph is probably those automobile hubcaps with spokes on them that harked back to the time when automobile wheels had real spokes.
The reason automobile wheels once had “real” spokes is because that was once the state of the art in automobile wheel design. Spokes were an early solution to the tough engineering problem of how to make a car wheel that’s both strong and light. Spokes were the shit for a while in automobile wheel design, before advances in alloys and such permitted a superior balance of strength and lightness to emerge. But not all cars, of course, availed themselves of the latest in wheel design based on advanced alloys. Some car makers, then as now, were keen on producing the most affordable cars possible. Advanced alloys, while outstanding for use in car wheels, are expensive. Cheap car makers sought compromises. One of those compromises was a fairly inexpensive stamped steel wheel design, that was not very light but was strong enough to be safe. What the added weight of the wheel compromised, exactly, was the absolute responsiveness of the car. Heavier wheels need more driver input to control. The emergence of hubcaps owes equally, I think, to the fact that stamped steel wheels are kind of ugly, and also to the fact that cheap car makers were a little bit ashamed of the compromise. So, all hubcaps had a kind of shame and deceptiveness about them. They were covering up an ugly truth.
That’s why a missing hubcap was also always sort of a black eye on the car. There was opprobrium in a missing hubcap, not just because a missing hubcap is unsightly, but also because a compromise had been exposed. Not all hubcaps tried to look like something else. Many designs were just simple discs. All these were meant to do was cover the stamped steel wheel that was underneath, ugly and unstreamlined as it was with its array of projecting bolts. But the spoked hubcap design compounded concealment with deception, because it was trying to look like something else, something better.
Skeuomorphism in the design of everyday objects goes back much farther even than the hubcaps of the Seventies. But those older examples are less relatable. The spoked hubcap example is not only relatable to most people today, it also helps you to understand why there is a kind of ideological bias against skeuomorphism, still.
The reason skeumorphism has been so much on-the-brain lately of people who like to think (and write) about the ways things work and the reasons for things being the ways they are is because of Apple, and in particular because of Apple’s most recent innovations in personal computing — namely, the iPhone and the iPad.
A few days ago, I came across an article from last year that was still being kicked around on Hacker News. The piece was an indictment of Apple’s continuing use of skeuomorphs in its mobile software interface designs. As I read the critique, I couldn’t help but be struck by how much the denouncement of skeuomorphism lay upon ideological, almost moral grounds. Of skeuomorphs in Apple software design, this particular blogger wrote: “They are lies.”
He also described the penchant for making software look like familiar objects from the non-digital world as “infantile” and “sentimental”.
The apps in question are well known to us. They include a calendar, a bookshelf, a calculator, a notepad, a camera, and others, all of which offend, because they resemble their non-digital counterparts. These lapses by Apple into skeuomorphism on the software design front stand in stark contrast, the blogger asserts, to the “rational”, “modernist” unornamented design imperatives exemplified by Apple’s offerings on the hardware front.
“These apps all stem from a completely different, and I would say opposite aesthetic sensibility than the plain devices they run on.”
I Googled “Apple skeuomorphism” and found there were fairly lots of criticisms of Apple along the same lines.
The common thread is they all seem to attack Apple on the basis that skeuomorphism is an innately unworthy design paradigm. And, perhaps even more misguidedly, they attack skeuomorphism because, they say, it is irreconcilably at odds with the high design ideals to which Apple aspires in its devices. Not a single attack was based on how well the software works or on how easy it is to use.
“For a company with such excellent taste and attention to design, the skeuomorphism of their mobile operating system seems so completely out of place. How can a company that is always on the cutting edge of hardware and experience be satisfied to cheaply emulate “real life” objects in their UI?”
“The point is that there’s something that feels gratuitously obvious about the philosophical approach Apple takes to the design of the iPad book app and many of its other recent application designs. It’s very easy for skeuomorphism to become a crutch and a way to justify lazy design decisions.”
The second quote is extra interesting because it suggests that skeuomorphism is somehow standing in the way of legitimate advances in interface design, as if software designers (not just at Apple) are somehow afflicted by skeuomorphism, and that they should take special pains to purge themselves of this affliction if software design as a whole is to move forward.
That software designers (at Apple or anywhere else) should be made to feel pressure to abandon skeuomorphism is a mistake. Here’s why.
Skeuomorphs work. I find it interesting that some people see a rift or a dichotomy between what Apple has done on the hardware design front with these amazing new devices and what they’ve done on the software design front for those very devices. To see a schism there is to fail to see a bigger picture.
Though the elucidation and pursuit of design ideals are a big part of what we expect from Apple, the company’s first priority is to create products that serve the greatest majority to the greatest effect. iPhones and iPads (and some of their subsequent imitators) have succeeded in establishing themselves so deeply in our lives, so quickly (as our most important computing devices), not just because the hardware forms were right, but also because their software design made it possible for even computer illiterate people to jump right in. I would argue that that kind of adoption would not have been possible without the use of skeuomorphs in software design that served to instantly orient new users.
Bringing together unprecedented hardware designs that feel just right in our hands with software that makes its function self-evident even to people who’d never used a computer before doesn’t sound like a confused design dichotomy to me. It sounds perfect. That the software designs should have borrowed from familiar objects and physical paradigms to help us quickly understand what to do with these apps doesn’t feel like laziness to me. It feels like a smart choice.
I would take that even one step farther, and suggest that iPhones and iPads and skeuomorphs are a match made in heaven. By making the human finger the primary means through we interact with these remarkable new devices, Apple has made a quantum leap for human computing in the direction of the physical. Because the mouse is gone and the keyboard is gone, and we can now hold these devices very intimately in our hands, there is an opportunity to greatly expedite the flow of human intent.
Humans, who are of course physical, enjoy an elaborate capacity to interact with physical objects with our hands. It’s how we made the world. As computing becomes now more tactile, more direct, leveraging our instincts for manipulating physical objects through skeuomorphism in software design is just another way to expedite the flow of intent.
A bold new design principle in computing hardware that lets us use our hands and fingers so well, combined with an approach to software design that leverages our skills handling physical objects is not a dichotomy. It’s a brilliant synergy.
What this tells me is that the people at Apple have the sophistication as designers and as thinkers to understand that the same design ideals should not be applied across all design choices. Different design objectives should be governed by different ideals, and those ideals should be chosen, not on ideological grounds, but on the basis of how well they serve the user.
It’s eye-opening, also, to note that a number of the Apple patents that were recently upheld against Samsung are skeuomorphisms. Digital behaviors like “bounce back” and “pinch to zoom”, so prevalent throughout iOS and all the apps that run on it, import user expectations and intuition from the physical realm and from the behavior of physical objects. Skeuomorphism is not only relevant to the software designs of the future, the best of these ideas are already insanely valuable.
Folks who think skeuomorphism is about rivets and stitches and building emotional attachment through kitsch are definitely missing the big picture.
There is another disturbing implication in the general exhortation that software designers should abandon skeuomorphs just because they’re ideologically impure. It suggests that software users are going to have to do their part, if software is to advance, and struggle to figure out non-intuitive designs whose only redemptive attribute is that they have steered clear of skeuomorphism.
As someone who is professionally concerned with the development and popularization of software applications, I feel somewhat qualified to tender the opinion: That’s fucking bullshit. The best software design is always going to be the one that best exposes the utility of the application. And if skeuomorphism can be exploited to that end, then it should be embraced.
I don’t really want to name any names, but we are all aware of some software companies out there who are struggling very hard to get people to understand what their software does. In some cases, these applications are trying to solve important problems, to make things better for everyone, but their far-reaching aims tend to result in the creation of software interfaces that are absolutely unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. For the most part, this is awesome. I’m not suggesting that skeuomorphism is a magic bullet, but I would certainly not want to see the designers at these companies avoiding skeuomorphs that could work in their apps simply because we’d permitted an ideological bias against skeuomorphism to pervade.
But the best defense of skeuomorphism in software interface design may be to hold up its most shining examples. Paper by 53 is my favorite. I admire this app on many levels, but what earns it a place in this discussion is its deep embrace of skeuomorphism throughout the app.
Paper is basically an authoring tool. Its simple (incredibly lofty) goal is to make it easy for people to get things out from inside their heads and “down on paper”, as it were. These things can include notes, sketches and anything in between. The first investment the Paper app makes in skeuomorphism is in, well, paper. The designers of this app understood instinctively (because they are creative people at heart, not design theorists) that physical paper is a great metaphor on which to build a piece of software whose aim is to let people create. You can turn pages, tear sheets out, assemble notebooks from sheets of paper, have many notebooks. There are even multiple digital “tools” available to you, each made to look like a familiar writing or painting instrument from the physical world, that do different things and confer different creative powers on the user.
The use of skeuomorphism in Paper goes beyond making function self-evident; it elevates the entire application and leads the user to a discovery of its powers that will inspire him to create.
The paper-and-notebook skeuomorph is so compelling to creative users, it seems, that Evernote has just announced a dramatic visual overhaul of its popular mobile app based on Moleskine notebooks.
Skeuomorphism good. Skeuomorphs here to stay.
It may be useful to remind the design purists (who decry skeuomorphism on ideological grounds, who condemn it as an affront to the ethos that form should follow function) that all design inherits from the past. Everything is learned. The only truly intuitive interface design is the nipple.