January 13, 2012
From functional to decorative
For Friday Fun, a word that's new to me (tho not a new word per se — in fact, it's from the 1800s). First: I really like the word retronym, which refers to a term that has to be amended due to a technological change. Thus before the invention of the electric guitar, there was no notion of an "acoustic" guitar; all guitars were acoustic. Likewise dial phones, analog clocks, Classic Coke, and so on. (List of retronyms)
The new word I just learned is semantically kinda-sorta in that camp. (Maybe it's kind of opposite-y.) The term is skeuomorph (Greek: "vessel-shape"), and it refers to a vestigial design feature that represents something that was once functional. A popular example is the buckles on shoes — originally used to, you know, buckle the shoe, now used just for looks. Other examples are faux wood or fabric patterns in plastic; light bulbs shaped like candle flames; fake shutters that people mount next to the windows of their house; fake spokes in a hubcap; the "wax" on a bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon; and (a famous example) the tiny and useless "handle" that's on virtually all bottles of maple syrup.
Digital things often involve skeuomorphic features, and a lot of digital UI is often deliberately designed to look like something real. As a trivial example, drop shadows on anything and everything are purely decorative, since of course there is no light source on electronic bits. If you design digital things, you have a choice of a wide variety of textures — wood, metal, etc. — that you can paint onto something to make it look real. Digital cameras often have a fake shutter sound when you take a picture. The icons for every music player (for play, stop, pause, etc.) all derive from those same physical functions in a tape player, where the Play arrow actually represented physically moving the tape. Obviously, the desktop metaphor for Windows (et al.) is skeuomorphic, along with "files" and "folders". Lexicographerix Erin McKean notes that online dictionaries display information in a format that's based on book-y layouts, even tho that format was originally dictated by the constraints of the printed medium that don't really apply to online stuff.
Skeuomorphic design elements are by no means inherently bad or silly. Sure, putting fake rivets on jeans seems a little unnecessarily quaint. And there's a rousing discussion in the UI design community about whether skeuomorphic design is ultimately a good idea for something like tablets. One blog post calls it "the tactile illusion." For an earful, search for "skeuomorphic user interfaces".
But the argument in favor is that a skeuomorphic design provides a familiar interface — a "material metaphor" — so that people can fit a new design pattern into their existing understanding of the world. For using a music player on a computer this is convenient, tho not essential; ditto for being able to "flip" "pages" in a "book" on an e-reader. If I were designing a jet plane, tho, I would think long and hard before I made any changes to the control panel, no matter how anachronistic it might be in the age of fly-by-wire to have physical control yokes. When we start seeing cars that are likewise controlled all digitally (and we're not far off), it will be a long time before we are weaned off steering wheels, brake pedals, and accelerators.
Update 17 Jan 2012: Cory Doctorow posted a piece (In praise of skeuomorphs) on skeuomorphs just today (17 Jan)! (h/t to Edward Banatt for the link)
Anyway, I'm happy to know this new word and to have been introduced to the whole idea of skeuomorphic design. Apparently the learn-new-words part of my brain remains, in fact, more than just a vestigial decoration.