To Skeuomorph or not to Skeuomorph?

Steven Brykman | January 8, 2014 | In the News

I’ll admit it. Like many of you out there, when I first heard that Apple’s iOS 7 was pulling away from Skeuomorphisms, I thought, “What the hell is a skeuomorph?” So I asked my art-school spouse, who replied, “They made that up. I’ve never heard that word before in my life.” At first I assumed she was right, because—believe me—she remembers everything.

But just to be sure, I pulled out my actual print version of the Oxford English Dictionary (1982 compact edition) and there in the back Supplement appeared the following exhaustive explanation:

“…first used by H Colley March in Trans. Lanc. & Cheshire Antiq. in 1889: ‘The forms of ornament demonstrably due to structure require a name. If those taken from animals are called zoomorphs, and those from plants phyllomorphs, it will be convenient to call those derived from structure, skeuomorphs…As soon as man began to make things, to fasten a handle to a stone implement, to construct a wattled roof, to weave a mat, skeuomorphs became an inseparable part of his existence…The transfer of thong-work from the flint axe, where it was functional, to the bronze celt, where it was skeuomorphic.’”

The problem with skeuomorphism, however, is that eventually the objects portrayed become outdated and cease making any sense. “Thong-work” takes on a whole new meaning in an age of twerking. And how often does anyone need a bronze celt these days (a prehistoric stone or metal implement with a beveled cutting edge used as a tool or weapon)?

Now more than ever, such is the case that our iconography is in complete discord with our reality. Because despite Apple’s best intentions, the native iPhone springboard icons still contain a bunch of skeuomorphs. The Videos icon still looks like a clapper board when it should really just be a large play-triangle. The Clock icon—for whatever reason—still features an analog clock with hands (though at least now they keep time). The Delete icon looks like the type of round metal trash can that hasn’t been in use since the 1970’s. The Camera icon even seems to have aged since the last iOS (when it was just a lens). And when was the last time anyone saw a pay-phone-style phone receiver? Did you even know it was called a receiver? In fact, when was the last time you used any of the objects these iOS 7 icons are meant to represent?

trashiconiOS7flashlightiOS7  facetimeiconiOS7  calciOS7  camera2iconiOS7   phoneiconiOS7

Real-world flashlights, cameras, calculators, and telephones no longer resemble these icons. Why? Because ironically, these days the thing that’s most representative of what we all use for a camera or a flashlight or a calculator or even a phone is—you guessed it—an iPhone (or Android device)! Sure, some degree of skeuomorphism may be unavoidable, because short of using complete abstractions to represent our world, we’ll always require some sort of visual identifier. But why should a digital address book look like a real address book when everyone uses digital address books and nobody I know uses a real one anymore? There are even problems when digital objects refer to things in the digital realm. For instance, when was the last time you saved something to a 3.5” floppy disk? (Which itself wasn’t floppy, but which inherited the descriptor from its own predecessor, the legitimately floppy 5 1/4” disk.) Perhaps designers will start using images of alternate digital devices as icons (e.g. maybe the iBooks icon shouldn’t be a printed book but a Kindle, a more widely-used digital form of the same thing).

iBooksiconiOS7   ibooksNEWiOS7

This…becomes this

However, these are benign skeuomorphs, ones that are purely ornamental. But here are two of the most obvious interactive skeuomorphs that still persist in the iOS 7 UI: The Typewriter Keypad and the Settings Switches. And this is where Apple is really missing their own anti-skeuomorphic (virtual) boat. Because the point is, we all get it now. We’re not dummies anymore. We don’t need the things on our devices to look like things in the real world. Particularly when the things in the real world aren’t things anybody actually uses anymore. We don’t need our keyboard keys to look like keys on a typewriter anymore. We don’t even need buttons on our screens. We don’t need delineating circles and squares any more than we need to underline our hyperlinks and color them blue (RGB=0, 0, 255).

keyboardiOS7     keyboard_Proposed

      How the keyboard looks                                                            How it should look

Further, we don’t need a virtual switch to tell us if a function is on or off. Just let the function itself also act as the switch. Make the entire table cell tappable and use an alternating red-blue circle or greyed-out/black checkmark to indicate whether the function is on or off, like so:

switchiOS7 switch_Proposed switch2_Proposed

        This…                                               Should look like this…..                                            or like this.

pasted-imageIf we’re going to go for it, then let’s go for it. Lets go full-on Star Trek and start using pure abstractions to represent our digital world, like so:

The only bummer is that at least with skeuomorphs Apple could have some fun, delighting users with how real the things on screen looked: fancy stitching, wood paneling, bevelled metal. It was kitschy. And while today’s look might be more correct and logical and efficient—more like a Vulcan-designed interface than an Earthling one—all I’m saying is, along with all the Helvetica Neues, what’s really called for is an all-new abstract logographic language, like modern-day hieroglyphs. Or maybe we just go with a dialect of Chinese.

Steven Brykman

Steven is a Digital Strategist and UX Architect focusing on Mobile Products with a diverse background in writing and literature. He spent much of the last decade as Creative Technologist/Lead Strategist of his own design company, helping Fortune 500 companies define the direction of their digital campaigns, websites and mobile applications. Additionally, he co-founded Apperian, a Boston-based mobile technology startup.

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