The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – Skeuomorphs

What is common among (most) cigarette filters, copper rivets on jeans, the UI of iCal in Mac and the 89-metre pylons at each end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge?

They have design elements that serve no practical purpose.

  • Cigarette filters are printed to look like cork — an allusion to an era of carefree smoking, when the biggest worry women smokers had was smeared lipstick.
  • Most rivets that you see on jeans are just decorative and functionally useless (some even covering the functional rivets underneath).
  • The UI of iCal as seen on Macs has references to functionally useless design elements like leather stitching, torn paper etc.
  • And believe it or not, the twin 89-metre pylons at each end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge  do not support anything; they are functionally useless. They are there only to frame the structure for aesthetic reasons.

These are examples of what are called as ’Skeuomorphs‘ (pronounced SKEW-a-morphs). In simple terms, Skeuomprph is an approach to design that uses design elements which serve no specific function but are purely ornamental/emotional/metaphorical in their roles.

This S-word apparently is one of the most debated trends currently in design. The interesting thing about Skeuomorphs is that, once you are aware of them, they start popping out from everywhere around like:

  • Physical Skeuomorphs: fake windows and vents that don’t open, the hubcaps on car wheels that have no functional relevance,
  • Digital Skeuomorphs: the Folder icons on your desktop, the iBooks & iCal UI in Macs,
  • ‘Experiential’ Skeuomorphs: digital page turning that mimics the physical experience, and
  • Aural Skeuomorphs: theshutter release sound in a digital compact camera, the recorded sound clip that gets played each time you Empty Trash on mac, etc

Apparently most things Apple are very infamous examples of the Skeuomorphic design philosophy. Designers who hate Skeuomorphs do so as they find them distracting, and gimmicky often limiting real innovation. Proponents of Skeuomorphs however argue that they create familiarity and build a human element in our interaction.

I tend to take both sides of the argument. While I definitely am not a big fan of designs that limit possibilities in new mediums on account of their outdated references, I tend to believe that when executed well, Skeumorphs can play a very meaningful role in fostering an effortless level of user (or viewer) interaction (or perception).

My 3 favorite Skeumorphic design examples:

1. The concept of a Shopping Cart in e-commerce sites: While this is obviously a reference from (a bygone?) era of brick and mortar shopping, it nevertheless makes us easy to understand and relate to what we are doing. Can you think of any other simple, logical and a more compelling way of designing this element ‘in tune with the times’? I can’t.

2. Nest Thermostat: Touted to be the most innovative thing that ever happened to thermostats, its design is based on a deceptively simple yet alluring concept of the analog knobs. Do they necessarily need to have the ‘knob’ interface? No. But do they serve any specific purpose? You bet! See the  video here:

And lastly – my most favorite example:

3. Skeuomorphs as a powerful metaphor in advertising: In 2009, Transitions – the first company to commercialize and manufacture plastic photochromic lenses –  had a 30s TV spot. See below.

Do I get it? May be yes/May be no.

Now in early 2012, they introduced what they called as ‘Adaptive Lens Technology’ through a 30s ad. See below.

Do I get it? Hell yes! The concept of a ‘control knob’ is a brilliant metaphor that drives the point home with merciless clarity, engages me and potentially persuades me in just 30s- all this because I… I just get it! I understand how exactly these lenses feel like. Thanks to the obvious Skeuomorph!

Can you think of any other brilliant/ bad examples of Skeuomorphs?

PS: I agree, they should have thought a simpler word for this 🙂

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