November 4, 2012

Skeuomorphism — mimicking real-life objects on the computer screen — may have died along with Steve Jobs.

And it seems doomed if it's viewed as cute or ornamental, but there's also the argument based on functionality.

You might wonder why beauty for it's own sake won't work as an argument, but the problem is those in a position to decide probably committed to an aesthetic that aligns beauty and simplicity.


BarryD said...


Skeuomorphism exists everywhere in the technology world, and while Jobs had a hand in popularizing it in the mid 1980s, he had nothing to do with its continuing use.

When you press the button on a digital camera and it makes a familiar "click", that's also skeuomorphism. The same goes when you flip the page of an on-line catalog and it goes "swoosh." Calling e-mail "mail" is, itself, a skeuomorphism.

While the exact nature of skeuomorphs changes over time, as people are familiar with different objects, it is arguably the most common way to make ever-changing technology remain familiar.

BTW "skeuomorphism" does NOT mean "mimicking familiar objects on the computer screen." It means "keeping some form of an older technology even though it's not necessary as part of new technology."

It's very, very old. Greek columns, made of marble, were built in a form that mimicked earlier wooden structures, for example. Shoes with synthetic soles have long mimicked the stitching of earlier materials, for no reason other than to keep them from looking too plain.

Over three decades, skeuomorphism in computer interfaces has been successful as one tool in a large toolkit. Its appropriateness will vary, and again, symbols will change -- today's kids have probably never seen a traditional telephone handset except in a period film!

But the computer keyboard, itself, is a skeuomorph! The WHOLE keyboard.

tamsf said...

I guess I prefer the 3d look of the calculator buttons, aesthetically. But the 2d buttons are *much* easier to read. That's a big deal, especially when you only have limited real estate. If you get too cute you end up wasting a lot of space. And its on the PAD devices that such space issues are a hard limit.

tamsf said...

I guess I prefer the 3d look of the calculator buttons, aesthetically. But the 2d buttons are *much* easier to read. That's a big deal, especially when you only have limited real estate. If you get too cute you end up wasting a lot of space. And its on the PAD devices that such space issues are a hard limit.

EDH said...

Butthead, on skeuomorphism .

"...That'll be cool."

BarryD said...

3D buttons with false shadows are one way to give the user feedback so it's obvious when the button is pressed.

Is this the only way? No. Will this be one way that makes sense for some interfaces, well into the future? Most likely, yes.

Askance said...

Design slaved to marketing is destined to be judged by sales. That's not merely unfair -- it's invalid. In the world of high-stakes product design, the designers are providing what the marketers claim people want to buy.

People want beauty, novelty, elegance, simplicity, functionality, pleasure and charm from these devices. They want to have the same device everyone else has -- and they want to have their device be special, unique and unlike any other.

A good design sells, until it doesn't.

Nothing is timeless -- imagine how it would look for that app to show, instead of a reel-to-reel tape deck, an image of an Edison cylinder phonograph. Would you rather be comforted by a familiar image of a tape system which reminds you of a time when you felt you were in control of the technology and you almost understood how it worked? Who is it this image trying to appeal to? What's the message in the medium? What do the marketers think we want? Who do they think their buyers are?

Darrell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
john sager said...

Barry D,

Thanks for the insight. I vaguely recognized the term, but the original post was not helpful with reacquainting me with it.

Darrell said...

The problem is with the yutes who have never seen the original that's being mimicked. That sort of thing freaks them out nowadays, apparently. Like when you mention Humphrey Bogart. No they won't bother to Wiki his name. They are content in their ignorance yet upset just the same. You are supposed to adjust to their needs--like every adult around them has been doing since their first day on this mortal coil.

jr565 said...

The Skeuomorphism in question that many people have an issue with is the Address Book leather look in OSX Mountain Lion. So many people can't stand that look and install programs to remove it.
Those were the brainchild of Scott Forstall (along with the much derided Maps program) who's being sent packing at Apple. And this design aesthetic was at odds with Johnathan Ive's minimalism.
Now, in the case of theAddress book leather, it is hoakey and cheesy, but I'm not sure if I like Ive's minimalism all that much either. And just because it doesn't work for an address book doesn't mean it should be done away with entirely.

edutcher said...

Where I last worked, we were told to make it as simple and intuitive as possible.

bagoh20 said...

I miss DOS. Text is king.

20 years ago I wrote a timekeeping program in Pascal for our company to replace paper timecards. It used bar codes, was multiuser, and could run well on the slowest computers. A few months ago, we decided that since I was the only one who could understand the code and maintain it that we would get a new graphical windows based program to replace it. We have been through three of them now, and nobody is happy. There just is no substitute for a tool that does exactly what you want without extraneous bells and whistles.

Graphical interface took over early because it was cool, but it has always had drawbacks in productivity. Many business programs where productivity matters most are still text based to some degree with just a veneer of graphical interface.

BarryD said...

"Where I last worked, we were told to make it as simple and intuitive as possible."

Exactly. Sometimes, that's skeuomorphic, like the iPad's on-screen camera button. It's hard to think of something that would be simpler or more intuitive, that didn't evoke a similar image from past cameras.

Sometimes, it's not skeuomorphic, especially when that means totally non-functional mimicry.

jr565 said...

What about the idea of a desktop. Is that metaphor Skeuomorphism? Look at window 8 with its panels that are confusing as he'll to many trying to use Window who want to use a desktop and have trouble getting the new interface.
Designing an interface based on the familiar is making it easy for a user.
If you had to explain files and folders and the folder hierarchy you inevitably go to the familiar. It reminds one of a file cabinet, which most are used to. Even those who aren't used to old file cabines are used to the file cabinet metaphor of desktops and folders.
If companies stray too far from the familiar it becomes overly complicated and alienates customers, who want things that work. Primarily that's because they know the interface already.
And why would a calendar not look like a calendar?

bagoh20 said...

I would prefer my phone have a simple customizable spreadsheet layout listing all the functions as text buttons. Pictures need to be translated to text in your head anyway, and I don't have any brain cells to spare for that.

Lem said...

As designer Tobias Bjerrome Ahlin points out, when it’s used appropriately, skeuomorphic design can give users a quick sense of what an app does. This is especially true for nonexperts.

If it aint broke dont fix it.

Joe said...

I don't know what this has to do with Steve Jobs. I don't recall Jobs pushing the view that UIs must mimic the real world. There are a few places where Apple unfortunately followed this meme and wouldn't let go, such as using "dials" in QuickTime, though I'm not sure this was because of Steve Jobs.

(In the early 90s, this attitude combined with "make UIs groovy" and resulted in a series of disastrous attempts at especially PhotoShop plug-ins which looked great but which were essentially unusable.

jr565 said...

I guess the problem with Skeuomorphism is that it's a double edges sword. I can see the problem say with the Podcasts app, which supposedly uses the visual metaphor of a reel to reel tape, so when you play a podcast it looks like you're playing it on a reel to reel. Except is that an image that many people are used to? If you've never seen a reel to reel, does it resonate as icon that is familiar. Whereas, if you' were looking for a calendar app, and were trying to figure out where it is,finding the one that looks like a calendar makes a lot of sense, and if you open the calendar and it looks like a calendar then you pretty much know how to use it immediately.
Some icons or I terraces though are more familiar than others. Sometimes opt works, and. Sometimes it looks cheesy.
In the case of the Address Book, the idea that it has to look like a Leather Address book, looks cheesy and antiquated (the antiquated part may be the point). But I don't like leather address books on an aesthetic level, (I.e. if I were going into Staples, I probably wouldn't buy an address book that had a leather cover) so it actually turns me off. If they're going to go that route, then they might as well allow you to skin the address book so that you can change the look to one you like. But they lock you in to that antiquated address book look.
So in some cases, the desktop looks futuristic and modern, and in other cases it looks like you're using office supplies from the 80's depending on what you're doing.
I'm a fan of Skeuomorphism, but companies can tend to overdo it, and if they pick the wrong image or icon, then it doesn't work.but that really has to be judged on a case by case basis.

Lem said...

They remind us of stuff we already know, and stuff we already know feels comfortable.

If Apple makes radical changes, just because they can and dont take into account the costumer, what happened to New Coke could happen to them too.

Goizueta [Coca cola CEO in 1985] publicly voiced a complaint many company executives had been making in private as they shared letters the company had received thanking them for the change in formula, that bashing it had become "chic" and that, as had happened in the focus groups, peer pressure was keeping those who liked it from speaking up in its favor as vociferously as its critics were against it. Donald Keough, the company's president and chief operating officer, reported overhearing this exchange at his country club outside Atlanta:

"Have you tried it?"
"Did you like it?"
"Yes, but I'll be damned if I'll let Coca-Cola know that."

Even if something is supposedly "better", that by it self, doesn't necessarily mean success is guaranteed.

If people for whatever reason begin to suspect they dont come first... emotions take over.

Lem said...

The fact that Steve Job is dead makes for a bad meme/bad pr just waiting to happen.

The big died and they fucked up his vision... If Jobs were alive... bla bla bla.

That shit writes itself.

Lem said...

What the geeks are proposing may make sense to them... but the product is not for them!

And another thing.

Here you are the baddest, the biggest and the best... in a very short amount of time... no easy feat... and you want to change and look like the competition you have left behind?

There is nothing more entertaining than seeing spectacular success fail spectacularly.

fivewheels said...

That was always my problem with Apple as a young geek. They pioneered the shift from actually "user" friendly (for people who knew what they were doing) to idiot-friendly.

Take the humble trash can. To delete a file, I think you had to be a computer-fearing grandma type to need a picture of a trash can in order to understand the concept of deleting a file. "And then, see, you can click and drag the file all the way over to the trash can, and see? You throw it out! Isn't that cute?"

Me, I never had a problem with the delete key. Simple, quick, USER-friendly. But it wasn't cute enough for the masses. All hail the dumbing-down led by Apple.

fivewheels said...

I shouldn't say idiot-friendly. Novice-friendly would be correct. But most of us eventually outgrow being novices, and no longer need the artifice that clogs up graphical UIs and slows down the real work.

Shanna said...

Interesting article.

I just got an iphone a few months back so I'm getting used to their aesthetic. I like Notes. I think it looks cute. The game center looks tacky. The reel thing for podcasts is stupid, but you mostly can't see it (at least the way I use it) so I don't really care.

It doesn't have to all be the same. Use it where it looks good or dont' where it doesnt'.

Carl said...

A user who frets more about esthetics than functionality has too much time on his hands, and is ipso facto not the marginal consumer.

A developer who thinks that was is on his way to unemployment, and a company that thinks that way is on its way to Chapter 11.

gbarto said...

The trash can icon is actually a big success. Yes, the delete key works just fine if you've got a decent sized keyboard. But as we use smartphones and tablets more and more, having a simple icon that's easy to find on a crowded screen beats fitting one more key into a tiny keyboard at the bottom of the screen. All hail the trash can indeed!

BarryD said...

Everything we know as the modern computer is a skeuomorph.

Computers don't need or use letters and numbers.

My first computer had no keyboard, and data went in and out in base 16.

Even the use of base 10 numbering is a skeuomorph. Computers have to convert every bit of data in and out of base 10, to use it. We use base 10 because we have 10 fingers. Computers don't.

Computers don't have folders, either.

The question is how far to take the use of visual and auditory metaphor, and when to say, "You know, it's just better to have people learn how to do what makes sense on a computer."

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

fivewheels said...

Me, I never had a problem with the delete key. Simple, quick, USER-friendly. But it wasn't cute enough for the masses. All hail the dumbing-down led by Apple.

Not necessarily. The public at large also had a hand in dumbing things down. It was well into the 2000's before I ever encountered users that didn't blame the infernal machine first.

Chip Ahoy said...

You know what? I started getting pop-up ads all over the place on this new thing and I'm all, what? what? Don't tell me I have to go and get another adblocker, and sure enough, the whole ad on section was blank.

I discovered an amazing ad on that has changed my online experience. It's a YouTube 'get rid of all that crap-arizer.' When it first kicked in, a link to a video from another site, I thought I had been transported to a new and wonderful universe where site designers took their viewers' best interest to heart. But sadly absent are all the suggestions to similar videos whereupon you can easily become delightfully lost. Those are gone. So if you can deal with that, it gives you a blank page with the video on it.

دردشة ومنتديات عراقنا said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
tim maguire said...

If it doesn't suck, i'll probably like it more than Apple's last couple "offerings" (scare quotes because the POS ios6 was thrust on me and I can't give it back).

Methadras said...

Oh, in my line of work I can go on and on about Skeuomorphism. I try to stay away from it as much as possible. It can be unoriginal and stale.

Robert Cook said...

"Graphical interface took over early because it was cool...."

No, it took over because it made computers usable by and useful to people who were not programmers, that is, the masses.

Most of us who use computers can do what we require using GUI. If typing in code were still the only way to use computers, few would use them. Our world has been transformed, arguably more for the better than for the worse, by the mass acceptance and use of computers, and this would not have happened without the implementation of a graphical interface as standard in most cases.

Even so, computers are still too complex for many to use to greatest effect, and this is why iPads and their like are so popular: they reduce common computing functions to the level of turning on a television and adjusting the volume or changing channels.

It's not about "cool," it's about utility.

Robert Cook said...

As an aside, has anyone else ever pondered over the use of "cool" to mean "popular?"

This was not its original meaning--the term arose in the milieu of jazz musicians--and, by definition, those who were "cool" were those who knew something most of us did not. They were "cool" because they did NOT simply ape the received and accepted attitudes and opinions of the many, but went their own way, and possessed a secret knowledge or aesthetic or point of view shared among a few.

In this usage, that which is popular among the masses is, by definition, not "cool."

bagoh20 said...

"It's not about "cool," it's about utility."

No, in business applications, text based systems are easier for anybody, because you are not just looking at stuff, you are entering data even more, so you don't want to keep reaching for a mouse.

I remember the transition well, where the text based systems were faster and easier to use, but what happen was the software companies started competing on pretty, colorful and graphical interfaces, and even though they were less productive, they were just cooler, as in: newer, different, modern. Soon the software companies gave you no choice, because programing and selling graphical was just more fun and "cool".

In business, the graphical interface is still often an impediment to productivity.

bagoh20 said...

As to the use of "cool": It's not that cool means popular - it's that it's popular to be cool. Everyone wants to be part of the group who is cool as you defined it above.

Robert Cook said...

"'s that it's popular to be cool. Everyone wants to be part of the group who is cool as you defined it above."

Sure, but by definition, that can never be. Once everyone is part of the group, its "cool" has evaporated. "Cool" is always that which is possessed by the few, never by the many.

As for the greater utility of text-based computing in business vs. GUI computing, granting your point for argument's sake, business computing is a limited part of the larger world of computing. As I said, computers would not have been widely adopted by users in home environments if text-based computing were still the only means of using these devices. A hot-rodder may know how to customize his car to his liking, not just aesthetically but mechanically, but most people use cars merely for conveyance, and not for hot rodding.

fivewheels said...

Yup, GUI:computer :: automatic transmission:car.

Maybe it's not wrong or right, but it just is.

bagoh20 said...

I think the graphical interface is something we have been sold on, a kind of very powerful meme. We really want the text - that's the meat. The graphical just makes it seem more fun, and I can't think a better term but "cool". If you had a device which instead of an icon of a trash can, had a the word delete, it would work just as well, but it would simply not be as "cool" and would not sell, despite no functional difference.

When you first get a new device you have to learn what the unfamiliar icons represent, and often you forget and need to relearn it. With a word instead this would not be the case. In fact, many systems have the word under the icon, so then what is the purpose of the picture but to make you think it's somehow "cooler" than just the word.

On my cellphone, it takes multiple screens to hold all the icons I use. A screen could hold far more small words in a grid of columns which could be scrolled up down, left and right and selected with a single finger that never really moves to the screen blocking it or being too fat to hit the right choice. The words could be arranged in alphabetical order so I don't need to look around for where I left that icon. This is a case where a picture is worth less than a single word, let alone a thousand.

sleepless nights said...

Hmm. Those people who remember all that will be dead in a few decades and it won't matter. It'll be somewhat romantic like candlelight, and now even incandescent bulbs.

Analog watches mimicked clocks, which mimicked sundials which measured the sun's movement.

Digital watches were round like old watches (and sundials) but with digital numbers. Time, now largely read on cell phones, has lost a tie to the natural world. It is purely a concept, an imaginary counting construct. I don't even know if kids bother to learn to "tell time" anymore.

Maybe it's like cursive writing, which made sense only for people with drippy pen and ink they didn't want to lift from the paper. Kids get about a year of cursive now, just about long enough to sign their name, and then go back to keyboarding and printing.

OTOH, I deeply resent my preferred smiley becoming unacceptably out of date. [I refer, of course, to the nose/no nose controversy.]

Sigivald said...

BagOh said: Graphical interface took over early because it was cool, but it has always had drawbacks in productivity. Many business programs where productivity matters most are still text based to some degree with just a veneer of graphical interface.

So, uh, "productivity" plainly never applies to anything involving not-text?

Because the graphical interface is king for anything visual, or for audio.

Frankly it's trivial to make it superior to "just text" ala DOS for even "business productivity", whatever that's taken to mean.

(Spreadsheets? Yeah, I'm sure navigating cells with a keyboard is "productive".

Except that it isn't.

Document editing? One can type just as well in a GUI as in text-mode, and the ability to set formatting and see that it's right is what most of us would call "productive", compared to "enter a cryptic code and hope nothing screwed it up".

TeX works, but there's a reason it almost only ever gets used with a GUI front-end, unless your last name's Knuth.

Yeah, you can keep your text-mode, thanks.)

Methadras said...

One of the primary reasons why microsoft was and has been so successful is because they were able to finally (rightly or wrongly) distill the windows GUI into something meaningful to the user. Something the user could understand without having to do hacks, command line tasks via MSDOS or something of the like. By the time windows 95 rolled around (remember, there were people waiting in midnight lines to get it nationwide) they had cinched up the over feel of the GUI to the point that it became ubiquitous. No more did people have to worry about digging deeper into the OS to get stuff done. You didn't need to know where certain things resided in memory or how the file system itself worked and wrote to portions of the drive. That was left to the nerds and geeks to dig into and thankfully that process was made even less painful. Now when you look at a GUI of any kind, it needs to convey simplicity with powerful usage. Getting the job done is how it needs to go. That's why Microsoft has done so well over the years.