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Quartz Obsession — Skeuomorphs — Card 1
While online shopping you’ve probably clicked on the shopping cart icon to view the items in your “basket.” When your smartphone lights up with a call from a friend or colleague it might also emit a “brrrrring” that invokes an old rotary phone. And during that phone call you could multitask and clean up your computer, deleting files and putting them in the trash or recycling bin. In each instance you are encountering a skeuomorph.
Derived from the Greek words skeuos (σκεῦος), meaning “container or tool”, and morphḗ (μορφή), meaning “shape,” the term describes objects that have ornamental features that are no longer of use, but were once essential to the task the object accomplishes. So that shopping cart icon is in reference to the carts you push while buying groceries, which while useful in a physical store, aren’t necessary for online purchases. And the ringtone on your phone is a reminder of how telephones sounded many iterations ago. Likewise, the camera flash sound on your phone is a throwback to film cameras; it’s an add-on and not part of how the flash functions.
But skeuomorphs are not just a way of paying homage to history or tapping into design-based nostalgia. They familiarize users to new or foreign technology, just as icons guide travelers around unfamiliar transit systems, menus, or museums. And as we become more familiar with these digital spaces, skeuomorphism has been falling away in favor of minimalist designs that mirror new technologies themselves. Will skeuomorphism carry on?
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Quartz Obsession — Skeuomorphs — Card 2
“Skeuomorphism is not a design crime. It’s the language that human designers have written to let humans talk to machines. That’s not something we should hate. If anything, its return marks the settling of new technological frontiers, unexplored territories that we need a little help to navigate.”
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Quartz Obsession — Skeuomorphs — Card 3
The term was invented in 1889 by Henry Colley March, a British doctor and skilled amateur archaeologist, for his essay “The Meaning of Ornament: Or Its Archaeology and Psychology,” written for a regional antiquarian society. Initially it described a design feature on an object that visually referred to a different material or technique—a basketweave pattern on a ceramic jug for example. Over time, though, its meaning has narrowed and changed. As philosopher of technology Dan O’Hara describes (pdf), it has come to mean an ornamental design element on a device that represents what was once a necessary physical feature on older versions of that device.
For instance, stone designs on ancient Greek buildings mimic carpentry elements of early wooden temples, with mutules, guttae, and modillions that were once functional, but were used for decorative purposes on the stone structures. The opera windows and vinyl roofs on luxury sedans in the 1970s, as well as the wooden panels on cars from the 1930s and ‘40s were throwbacks to the time of horse-drawn buggies. Even levers and dials in an airplane cockpit are skeuomorphs—all the controls are now computerized but the older functions are familiar to the pilots handling the planes. But O’Hara also argues that skeuomorphs aren’t always designed deliberately, and can also “occur unintentionally when aesthetic styles are inherited without thinking.”
Once relegated to the vocabularies of design and antiquities nerds, “skeuomorph” has come into more common usage as digital depictions of physical objects have proliferated, like Apple’s trash and Microsoft’s recycle bin, visual metaphors that instruct the user on how to discard data (Apple even has a skeuomorphic audio cue that sounds like paper being scrunched up when the “trash” is “discarded”). Meanwhile, floppy disk icons that instruct users how to save data hearken back to an older computer technology that’s almost completely disappeared yet survives in skeuomorphic form.
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Quartz Obsession — Skeuomorphs — Card 5
As a way to promote traffic safety, Toyota started to provide an optional device to make car sounds for the Prius hybrid in 2010 to make pedestrians aware of the passing car, as most hybrid cars are much quieter than gas and diesel vehicles.
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Quartz Obsession — Skeuomorphs — Card 6
Computer icons didn’t begin on the Apple Macintosh. That honor goes to Xerox with its Alto and Star computers in the 1970s and early 1980s. Skip Ellis, the first African-American with a PhD in computer science, led development on Xerox’s OfficeTalk (pdf), the first software to use icons for an office software suite. But they were “used primarily for folder icons and document icons, and not much else,” Larry Tesler, who worked for both companies, told CNET. “The Mac was the place that really had icons blossom.”
When Steve Jobs started building Apple computers in the 1980s, he used skeuomorphic elements to make the system more intuitive to users. The way those icons look is largely the work of Susan Kare, an artist and San Francisco museum employee Apple hired to design them. Kare’s wrote a PhD dissertation on the use of caricature in sculpture and her artistic and academic backgrounds allowed her to draw from an immense range of sources. “She also drew inspiration from pirates, ancient hieroglyphs, books on craft and folklore, and from the Symbol Sourcebook, a 1972 guide to graphic symbols that includes everything from astrological signs to the markings that hobos left behind on buildings to help guide one another on their travels,” writes Quartz reporter, Sarah Todd. Kare’s breadth of reference and free rein stood in contrast to Xerox’s conservative skeuomorphism, establishing a legacy apparent in the devices all around us.
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Quartz Obsession — Skeuomorphs — Card 7
Apple alum Bob Burrough shows that skeuomorphic features aren’t just designated for app icon designs. In this video, he demonstrates his UI experiment called Project Erasmus, which allows the interface to change based on the lighting and react as if it was a real physical phone or object with depth that you could reach out and touch.
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Quartz Obsession — Skeuomorphs — Card 8
When Apple announced in 2013 that they were changing many of the iconic skeuomorphic app designs—like leather-bound calendars and wooden bookshelves—for a simpler interface, it suggested the end of the skeuomorphic era. As Apple’s VP of software engineering Craig Federighi joked, “no virtual cows were harmed in the making of this.” Enter flat design, a minimalist approach to digital interfaces inspired by the Swiss style popularized in the 1950s and ‘60s, and marked by its clean, orderly aesthetic.
As users became familiar with touchscreens, their design could evolve to reflect their actual, “flat” technology rather than the past, as former Apple design guru Jony Ive told USA Today. Backlash to skeuomorphism even contends that it’s held technology back. Some vehicle features were inspired by the days of horse carriages, but if they had been designed by someone who had never seen a coach or buggy, how much different, even more advanced, would the car be today?
Nostalgia lovers need not fret though. New devices will continue to guide users with their old forms, like Apple’s analog clock design on Apple watches in 2014. Skeuomorphs still serve an important purpose for the digital immigrants learning new software and interfaces. Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, calls it “perceived affordance,” clues to what action is possible on the screen. It’s an idea borrowed from environmental psychologist James J. Gibson’s “The Theory of Affordances”—objects provide “affordances” for their potential use or action, like a doorknob.
We’ll still need old icons to navigate the new technology to come. Digital natives might not know what a floppy disk is anymore, but like the plane cockpit, some buttons and levers become so familiar to us that anything new would cause a relearning of the entire system.
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Quartz Obsession — Skeuomorphs — Card 9
When Apple updated to iOS7 and changed the interface to a flat design, one of the elements they omitted was automatic footnote numbering from its iBooks Author platform. And while it might seem insignificant, writer Michael E. Cohen points out the necessity of footnotes—especially in a digital format—to provide the connection between the main text and the additional content, all without interruption.