Skeuomorphism: "It was a good run, but I think I need to move on."

October 24, 2016

 Skeuomorphism: noun, an ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques [dictionary.com]

 

See the image to the left? When was the last time you actually touched one? When did you have a computer that actually had a slot for one? Why is this image still pervasive in many applications?

Let's get a few things straight here, before I rant more. . . . .

Skeumorphism vs Flat Design:

 

IMHO, there is not a direct comparison between skeuomorphism and flat design, the former being the nature of the imagery itself, the latter, the rendering style. A floppy is a floppy, regardless of the style it is created in.

Skeuomorphism vs Realism:

  • IMHO again: Skeuomorphism is all about the metaphor, Realism is the rendering style (see argument above).

Beyond the visuals:

And there is one more, often ignored, point. Skeuomorphism extends beyond the visuals, it applies to sound as well as haptic feedback:

  • Sound: The best example is the camera shutter sound on most smartphones/tablets. Do you have an actual shutter? [rhetorical] Another example is a page turn sound when reading e-books.

  • Haptic: An example would be a shake when you swipe across a screen.

So why did we do it?

It comes down to a warm fuzzy feeling. Though many skeuomorphic images/outputs are relics, it makes us comfortable to have something familiar in the non-tactile world of on-the-glass experiences. I would find it very interesting to user test individuals who have never touched a floppy disk, and ask them what that image actually looks like and means to them.

 

I admit, due to former precedent, I have, indeed, created a floppy image for 'save' in the last 5 years. Caveat: It was under duress after much discussion.

 

Let's list a few more rather outdated metaphors used to represent electronic actions/assets: trash can, file folder, page-and page with 'folded' corner, envelope, book, and phone handset, or better-handset on a phone base, just to name the ones that come to mind immediately. The last time I actually used an older, 2-piece phone, was about 30 years ago, at home, and the usual distraction, while the person on the other end was rambling away, was to try to right the headset coils. Don't deny it, you know who you are!

 

While those of us who have been in UX and design for more than [mumble] years know that tides rise and fall, know the 'new thing' is really a one-off of something that has come before, with usually about a 20 year lifecycle for major style and design guidelines. We smile and nod knowingly. Hell, look at bell-bottoms, while there really wasn't a resurgence of the extreme ones in the 60/70s, they DID come back in a reasonable resurrection of the original.

 

Coming back around to the topic. Especially with the rise of the Millennials, who have likely never touched or use a good deal of the truly outdated physical objects we have diligently reproduced electronically, we have been seeing a benevolent shift in iconographic language. We have started to eschew the trash can in favor of a simple 'x', for example. It is both a welcome, and invigorating wind that blows.

 

I will write more on this in the future.

 

To quote a postcard on my office door; "Monkeys steal my underwear at night."

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