Skeuomorphs: Lazy Fallbacks or Helpful Guides to the Future?

You might not know the word, but you surely know a skeuomorph when you see one. They’ve existed as long as people have been making things: Skeuomorphs are design details that serve no purpose other than to bear resemblance to the previous incarnation of the object. Like flame-shaped lightbulbs, push-button phones with dials the shape of rotaries, or the paper on a cigarette filter printed to look like cork.

Here’s a great new example: Not only is the Chevy Volt’s power plug designed to look like a gas nozzle, but it has a faux grill in the front.

chevy volt features skeuomorphic

Nicholas Gessler, a social scientist who had the foresight to register, offered this definition in a 1998 paper on the subject:

Skeuomorphs are material metaphors. They are informational attributes of artifacts which help us find a path through unfamiliar territory. 

Skeuomorphs are becoming even more common in digital products: the shutter sound your digital camera makes, a rewind button on a music player, online calendars set up to look like paper, a “shopping cart” on an ecommerce site. Clive Thompson argues in Wired this month that designers are getting lazy by relying on skeuomorphs:

skeumorphs definition future shock

… skeuomorphs are hobbling innovation by lashing designers to metaphors of the past. Unless we start weaning ourselves off them, we’ll fail to produce digital tools that harness what computers do best.

Think about it: How many times have you encountered apps or websites where old-timey design details were used for nothing other than aesthetics? (Steampunks get a pass. I guess.) This calculator app directly emulates a 1977 Braun device. That damn paperclip that denotes an attachment everywhere—who would understand that if it hadn’t been the default visual since we all started using computers? 

Even the free illustrator icons I blogged about rely quite a bit on skeuomorphs: I spy skeleton keys, a floppy disk, a doctor wearing a head mirror, and lots of old-timey telephones. For more thoughts on skeuomorphs, check out these presentation slides on skeuomorphs on Flickr (one of which is pictured above), and Aaron Weyenberg’s article “Is Realistic UI Design Realistic?” 

If you’ve seen any good (or horrible) examples of skeuomorphs, post them in the comments!

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