Reflections on Skeuomorphism

Braun_ui

Everybody is talking about it: Skeuomorphism. It’s a new word but an old dynamic, and a mouth full to say:

“When a derivative object retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original. Skeuomorphs may be deliberately employed to make the new look comfortably old and familiar.” Says Wikipedia. For example: a plastic silverware that attempts to look like its metal counterpart (using metallic ink, and/or groves existent on the original piece, but not exactly necessary for the item to function presently). Some call it just… decoration.

DIGITAL SKEUOMORPHISM

The description above is for Physical Skeumorphism. Now, Digital Skeuomorphism is taking characteristics or elements from real life objects and using them in digital interfaces to convey a sense of familiarity in users. For example: indentations on wood or metal textures (or even using materials as metal and wood), paper and lines on a digital editor (like the one below from Basecamp), textures (like the leather on iCal), and the switch-like buttons we use on our Ply CMS (below).

As is always the case, some dislike, some are for Skeuomorphs. For example, many argue that Apple ought to stop using Skeuomorphism in their software. But shouldn’t it be about the goal driving the app or website? Adding familiar elements to a UI can provide a point of identification that people can latch on. That can speed up acquaintance with the tool, and increase the chances of more people using it. When something is entirely new and different, the learning curve is steeper, and users’ mind can have a harder time finding a place where it can rest and focus; enough to encourage a next step. It’s common with exceptionally new things that the mind likes to avoid them entirely.

A SIDETRACK NOTE ON ‘THE MIND AVOIDANCE OF THE NEW’

Maybe you’ve heard of this, but many don’t know how it can be: when the boats of European conquistadors came to the new world, they observed that the natives did not see the huge galleons anchored some distance from the beach — although entirely visible — but they saw the small boats that came out of it and took the Europeans to the beach. Natives were familiar with the small boats — closer to their canoes perhaps — but missed entirely the bigger boats. It’s known that the mind focus on what it has been trained to focus, and has a hard time focusing on what it doesn’t have knowledge of (although entirely possible with training).

That’s how we tend to see only a small part of the whole; and to ignore what it’s unfamiliar. For example, you learn a new word and then you start seeing it all over, but that never happened so much before you actually knew of it.

Skeuomorphs, acting as the familiar cue, allows the mind to focus and pay attention.

RICH LIFE

Back to our discussion of Skeuomorphism… I also wonder if Digital Skeuomorphism is so used because life off-screen is incredibly rich, with its textures, colors, smells, shapes, light, shadows, sounds… All that life inside the screen is not. It’s like taking somebody that lives in a palace full of luxuries and putting them on a shack. They’ll miss the luxuries of the first life and will probably try to compensate for it somehow. (Remember the movie Trading Places?) I think in the same way, we compensate with Skeuomorphism for the lifelessness of digital life.

We see digital life (well, code: think DOS) as more impersonal, hard to identify with (I won’t say this is negative or positive, it just is). To compensate, don’t we attempt to carry over to the digital realm the cozy, comfortable little things we know from real life? We know the reactions these things produce, and we like them. This way, it is true that we can bring analogous rich emotional experiences through digital methaphors (Skeuomorphisms) to digital devices and make them more ‘palatable’. (i.e.: have you noticed how we put ‘rings’ in our cell phones that sound quite similar to the old telephones, when we could have done anything else?)

FAMILIAR AND OBVIOUS WORK, RIGHT?

Let’s take a look a bit on how “familiar” works.

We know the brain works less when it has figured out a routine. And it works more when is faced with something entirely new — in other words, it has to think. For the most part, I observed people tend to chunk themselves into one side or another of this issue. In one side is the group of the “Don’t make me think” (the book?); and on the other the people that are ahead of their time (in various degrees), who can’t help but innovate. My hunch is that the first group is larger than the later.

I think “Don’t make me think” (or keep everything more Skeuomorphic and familiar) works a lot of the times. Most of humanity is more conservative and ‘obvious’ works well for most people. And I don’t mean ‘conservative’ in the political sense. I mean as in taking the way of lesser resistance, or going with the obvious — which is labeled as boring sometimes, but might actually be smart some of the time. This has to do with how we evolved.

 

LEARNING CURVE

Ok, so we know familiar works. But then there’s the question: if we just keep everything too comfortable all the time, we will have trouble changing things we want to see changed? In fact, I believe that being too exposed to things that are too obvious all the time dumbs one down (I actually have seen that happen). There’s plenty of research on how creativity emerges that backs this up (the brain gets exercised when, well, there is a learning curve). Let’s leave it clear that I’m not evangelizing a learning curve all the time (that would be stressful!) It’s quite the opposite: life is easier without a learning curve all the time. But the rule of thumb to spur creativity and keep the brain sharp is: learn something new everyday. But at its very core, Skeuomorphism is an attempt to bring that learning curve down.

INNOVATION

And that brings us to avoiding Skeuomorphism altogether in order to innovate. I know it’s hard and scary to hear this, but it has to be done. But here is where the problems arise. Innovation almost always comes with discomfort. Everybody says they want to innovate, but seldom they want to push through the discomfort. Red flags are usually raised, potentials not seen, and ideas killed too soon. It’s a vicious cycle that only gets us back to what already exists. That’s fine some of the time. But once in while (or more often than not) I believe we need to move beyond.

ARE SKEUOMORPHS BAD? ARE THEY GOING AWAY?

From my understanding, the answers to these questions are No and No. Although some of the conversations around this topic have been dualistic (bad or good, and, go away or stay), I don’t think that’s the way to approach it.

As I tried to illustrate above, Skeuomorphs exist because of a need, and they work! I don’t say this lightly, since my natural inclination is more towards innovation. But one can’t go against the reality of the human brain. To me, this need is deeply related to transitioning from old to new. And it works many times in that use. What happens is that eventually the transition has been completed and skeupmorphs become obsolete.

Specifically, in the last 20 years or so we have been , as a civilization, transitioning from a physical-life-only, to a life that has also a digital side. Skeuomorphs aid with this transition. But now we have a generation that has already been completely raised on the digital, and as that, they don’t relate to the Skeumorphs so much, they don’t need a transition. It’s only natural that this generation and the ones close to it will start questioning the Skeuomorphs of our time. I have no doubt that these Skeuomorphs will go way sooner or later, as more of us have now become more acquainted and comfortable with the addition of a digital life. The paradigma will be officially shifted when the last generation born on a non-digital life has been gone. Like in 40-50 years? Until then, the skeupmorphs of our time will dwindle down slowly.

But, as long as the idea of time (and memory) exists, new and old will always be around, and the old will have always to transition into the new. In my view, as long as that cycles exists, new skeuomorphs will be used, using memory as an aid to introduce the new through the old. And, shifting drastically (or not) at the end of each cycle. Even nature works like that, evolving through slow long cycles, followed by intense sharp changes.

WHAT TO DO THEN?

If you forgive my getting too Budhist, my personal simplified way to deal with this is to follow the ‘middle way’. This middle, smarter way, is to adjust as needed. It’s to consciously be aware of the issue when approaching every single project (to speed up the paradigma shifts we wish to happen?). Maybe we can loosely slot projects into the following categories, according to each project’s brief requirements:

  • Use Skeuomorphs: If a lot of safety is required, don’t risk it. We still need to make money, right?
  • Go Hybrid: A safe place to play with innovation.
  • Be Purely Digital: Certain metaphors can still be used (patterns, like hatches, for example) if have a reason to be, and as such are not per se Skeuomorphs. Free of relations to other things, more creativity will emerge and surely innovation will result. Innovation when done the right way is like a jackpot. Purely digital is the approach of the new Windows 8 UI.

This might sound obvious, but thinking about it ahead of time will help us be aware of the possibilities when the time comes to make decisions about using or not Skeumorphs. In other words, will prevent us from falling into the mind traps of familiarity as a rule, and allow us to make more objective choices according to the results we want to get (innovation, full-proofness, or a bit of both).

Do you agree, disagree, comments? Would love to hear your thoughts and start a conversation!

Opening image (Braun UI) by Adrian Olczak

Posted by on July 12, 2012 with 3 comments so far

3 Comments

  1. The middle way: a reasonable approach. Wise words. Thank you for them.

    I found your page after opining that BaseCamp’s new “yellow legal pad” text documents were possibly a skeuomorph too far.

    What’s been bothering me about the recent upsurge of more “literal” digital skeuomorphs (like Apple’s faux-pleather Calendar app border with torn paper shreds) is that they are perhaps too literal. Despite Apple’s deep, deep roots in extraordinarily great user experiences, these feel like first-timers’ attempts.

    Thanks to your inclusion of Adrien Olczak’s Braun UI image, I wended my way to Dieter Rams’ ten principles of “good design” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dieter_Rams#Rams.27_ten_principles_of_.22good_design.22), which includes this, as its last item:

    • Is as little design as possible

    As automobiles evolved from “horseless carriages” (that looked nearly identical to “horsed carriages”) to vehicles as varied as a mom’s minivan and the Ferrari Enzo, design cues harkening back to horse-drawn carriages softened and eventually disappeared altogether. The VW “New Beetle” is unusual in that its retro-modern design includes vestigial running boards below the doors. But they _are_ mere vestiges: VW didn’t decide to incorporate running boards like I had on my ’72 bug, which were covered in rubber and on which you could rest a foot, if you wanted to.

    As I type this, I notice at the bottom of your page, a subtle shadow, making it appear that the body of your page (the bit with the light tan background and white content column in it) hovers slightly above the darker brown background. This is a kind of skeuomorph, too — it’s a nod towards (but, importantly, not a slavish copy of) a sheet of paper or card on a surface.

    To me, this is skeuomorphism done right. Like the VW’s running board-ish design detail, it calls the original to mind without being a photograph of it. It represents evolution and development of subtlety. It helps frame the content, reminds us of something we’ve seen before, helps our brains pretend that the content is well contained, but doesn’t distract by being too literal.

    Early cars had running boards because they were basically motorized horse carriages. Later cars had ’em because design moved slowly. Modern cars — most of ’em, anyway — don’t have anything even remotely like running boards, because they, and we, have evolved beyond the need for them. The Beetle (and other retro-styled vehicles like the one-time Prowler) have them to recall an earlier era of design.

    Quality skeuomorphs are like the Beetle: they extract the _essence_ of the earlier original, allowing our minds to draw upon a familiar model, without burdening the interface with toy leather and ripped paper.

    Comment by Dave Land on August 9, 2012 at 11:35 am

  2. Dave, I enjoyed reading through your thoughts on skeuomorphism on cars. The running board is a great example, I think, of how we can see the future of other skeuomorphs. Funny, Dieter Ram’s 10 commandments passed in front of my eyes twice in the last 2 days. Thanks for reminding me of it!

    Comment by karina on August 16, 2012 at 11:58 pm

  3. Here’s another good article on the topic.

    http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670760/will-apples-tacky-software-design-philosophy-cause-a-revolt

    All good stuff.

    Comment by Patrick Stroud on September 11, 2012 at 8:49 pm

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