Think of skeuomorphism as describing when something resembles whatever it was that used to do the job.
This is not a strict dictionary definition.1
The term may be unfamiliar. The idea is not.
Take the old Macintosh Address Book app. Before Apple modernised its software, the Address Book app looked like a paper address book.
You might also remember when computer operating system desktops had waste paper bin or trash can icons to tell you “this is where you throw things away”.
Phones are full of skeuomorphs. Every iPhone has icons showing a torch, a telephone handset, a camera and so on. What each of these does is obvious.
The envelope icon isn’t quite so apparent, yet you don’t need a PhD to figure out it is for email. Even if it is years since you last sent an envelope through the post.
Android phones have similar skeuomorphs.
Skeuomorphs don’t have to be software. Houses might have cladding where manufacturers made the building material resemble wooden boards or brick.
Soon a law change will mean electric vehicles in Europe must make car-like noises so that pedestrians and others get an audio cue to take care.
The idea behind skeuomorphism is that it helps you to better understand what you are looking at. It’s a visual clue telling you the purpose of the object. You see something familiar and, bingo, you know what that thing is going to do.
There’s a breed of skeuomorph idea where the visual cue lives on long after the original item has disappeared from use.
Mr flippy floppy
Perhaps the best known is the floppy disk icon you sometimes see used to indicate the save function.
It’s getting on for 20 years since computers had built-in floppy disk drives.
An entire generation has entered the workforce without every having seen a floppy disk in action. And yet, everyone knows what that image is supposed to mean.
No doubt you have heard stories of young people encountering a real floppy disc for the first time. While they may not know what the item is, or how it is used. They often recognise it from the icon.
Time to put skeuomorphism to bed
While the thinking behind skeuomorphism makes sense, as far as software and operating systems go, it’s best days are in the past. Skeuomorphic designs are often fussy and ugly. They clutter things up. The images are often meaningless and what is represented is not always clear cut.
Yet there’s a Catch 22 here. I prefer minimalist design. It’s easier to focus on the job in hand when the software stays out of the way. I was about to say that when I’m writing, I prefer to start with a blank sheet of paper.
Which is, of course, itself a skeuomorphism.
- 1 My Mac’s dictionary says: An object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material. ↩︎