Skeuomorphs and You


Skeuomorph. I’m guessing that’s a new word in your vocabulary, and yet you probably encounter dozens of these daily and have encountered them throughout your lifetime.

What Are Skeuomorphs?

A skeuomorph is “a physical ornament or design on an object made to resemble another material or technique… [The term] can be applied to design elements that still serve the same function as they did in a previous design.” Examples are:

  • plastic molded rivets or screw heads on an item mimicking the metal or wooden original
  • plastic Adirondack chairs, often with a faux wood grain (but not necessary to fit the definition)
  • ceramic baskets that have a woven look

Moving into our digital world, skeuomorphs include:

  • the shutter “click” of a digital camera
  • the swiping movement and even the sound of turning pages for eBooks
  • the look of a wooden bookshelf to “shelve” your eBooks
  • icons and design for:
    • folders and tabs
    • buttons, dials, and switches
    • calendars, legal pads for notes, and more

Skeuomorphs Are Changing

familiar iconsMany digital icons are skeuomorphs of real-world tools, but some of these tools may no longer be familiar. When was the last time you saw an actual movie camera with the two reels on top? Have you seen a more modern icon for recording video? Often, the triangular “play” button is enough. I’ve noticed the phone icon in this sample has been replaced on many sites by a drawing of a smartphone.

digital iconsSome new icons don’t even attempt to imitate anything, like the share and pin icons in the chart on the right. When I first saw the share icon, I had no idea what it was. I believe most people find the pin icon easy to understand.

So, what does this have to do with you? Well, there’s a bit of a debate about whether to continue using skeuomorphs.

According to Techopedia:

Overall, skeuomorphism has increasingly come under fire, largely because many of the nostalgic elements it attempts to portray – such as calendars, day planners, address books, etc. – are almost entirely foreign to younger generations of users. In addition, critics of skeuomorphism point to this reliance of physical objects in design as an impediment to making more useful designs. For example, many digital calendars look and behave much like a regular paper wall calendar; dismissing this structure could make them a lot more intuitive for users. In other words, design can be constrained by being bound to physical objects, even though computers are not subject to those constraints.

Are you ready for a developer to think totally “out of the box” for functions you’re comfortable with? Some future new functions may even have icons that don’t resemble anything familiar, similar to the icon for “sharing” now. When you upgrade your phone in the future, it may not have the look of 3-D buttons that depress.

It helps, of course, to be familiar with common icons and functions whether they are skeuomorphic or not.


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