Why Skeuomorphism should be a crutch and not a prosthesis

From cognitive tool to ornamentation, read on to see where Skeumorphism went wrong - and how to fix it.

With the recent focus on Skeuomorphism, I was motivated to share my own views on the matter. SM has been receiving a lot of bad press lately, fueled by the surprising shuffle in Apple’s corporate structure. Partly because of this, Apple – the gatekeeper of minimalist design – has become the face of this design esthetic. This raises a slew of questions. Why do they do it? And why do they get so much bad press? And most importantly, what is Skeuomorphism?

“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


What is Skeuomorphism?

Skeuomorphism piggybacks on our past experience in pursuit of intutivity In cognitive terms skeuomorphism makes perfect sense. The human mind is an expert in association. In fact, in biological terms that’s all there really is. Neurons connected with other neurons. A complex web of interaction between old and new knowledge. Excercising your brain means stretching this web, creating more connections, encouraging mingling in your brain. Researchers know this, and it forms the basis of powerful memorizing techniques where you attach new knowledge to past experiences. Want to learn a long sequence of numbers? Pick a fond memory like your childhood home or your walk to school. As you relive the memory, create markers and associate the new knowledge to these past experiences.


Skeuomorphism in design

SM works the same way. By mimicking, SM piggybacks on our past experience in pursuit of intutivity. Humans find comfort in familiarity, and dressing up new technology in old clothes makes it more approachable. By making a virtual book work exactly as a physical book, we already know how to use it. It’s a highway to ease of use. But like everything else in this world, SM also has a Lethal Dose.

tucker_461948 Tucker Sedan – Streamlined Design

To better understand SM in the context of design, it is helpful to explain the term MAYA. Postulated by Raymond Loewy in the 1960’s era of Streamlining, MAYA – short for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable – is an attempt at explaining the cognitive aspects of new products (innovation). MAYA describes the balance between the two opposing factors – Advanced & Acceptable, and their diametrical opposite relationship.

We define advance as ‘moving forward in a purposeful way’. Innovation is described in much the same way; ‘make changes in something established’. Both terms describe a development or improvement from the current state. As things get very innovative, they tend to shed their connections with current products. This becomes a challenge for users, because we have less knowledge of the thing at hand. We find it challengig to relate to, because we’re moving into uncharted territory. We sometimes say that products are way ahead of their time, implying that we humans are not ready for it yet. Newton is a great example of such a product.


The newton

Skeuomorphism makes the advanced acceptable.While Newton’s failure to succeed was a compounded matter, the biggest flaw was the inability to democratize the technology. It had handwriting recognition, wireless fax and email. It was packed with innovative features and had all the ingredients of a true game-changer. Still, it failed – and it did so because it wasn’t able to weave this technology into the web of our everyday lives. It felt very technical, and this also transcended to its user interface – lacking in intuitivity. In short, it offered amazing prospects of the future, but that future felt too unfamiliar. Cold. Perhaps a bit scary.

If something is too advanced, too radical – it sheds its connection with present knowledge. This is where Skeuomorphism comes to the rescue. Even though the product is very innovative, SM creates cues to the past.

What Skeuomorphism really is then, is a governing factor of MAYA. It can help make something very advanced more acceptable.


Apple and SM

Apple has done an amazing job with their iOS platform, starting with their iPhone in 2007. While many touch phones predates the iPhone, few of them took their user interface seriously. Most of them were cumbersome to use, often requiring a stylus. The iPhone elegantly solved seemingly basic things. How do you scale something? Pinch your fingers out (imagine a flat piece of rubber being stretched) How do you scroll through a list? Flick your finger as if your were moving a sheet of paper up or down. While a paper list might not rubber band at the end, the gesture is laden with meaning. Actually moving the list despite not having more content is a way to tell the user ‘Hey, I get what you’re trying to do.’ Bouncing back tells the user ‘There’s no more content, ill just give you what you previously had’.


Why the bad press?

In short? They have abused it. What was once a cognitive tool to ease a transition has now become esthetic ornamentation. That’s bad. Especially for Apple who has made a trademark of removing and reducing things to their essence. What was once a cognitive tool to ease a transition has now become esthetic ornamentation.

iPad Calendar App

In the case of the iPad Calendar App, it serves its function. Wether you prefer the esthetics is a personal opinion.

bothProgress bar trouble

The Podcast app is different. How many youths nowadays have even seen a tape deck, let alone an old radio player? It’s insane. Not only that, but it has severly impacted usability.

iOS is founded on some very, very strict graphic design guidelines, but SM has completely disregarded some of these. Take the progress bar in the Podcast-app. In the pursuit of mimicking ancient physical products the progress bar has lost all connotations of being a button that you can manipulate, and even if you still get it, the hit area has become ridiculously small. For this, Apple deserves the bad press. I am surprised to see something like this from Apple. Also, the radii on the buttons are very un-Apple.

A more uniform Apple

This debate perfectly describes the downsides of having waterproof bulkheads within an organization. Judging by the results, the Industrial Design Team and the User Interface Group have been very seperated at Apple – a tendency observed at many other companies. What made it very apparent in Apple products was the diametrically different esthetics between the two teams. I’m sure this is changing as we speak, and we will see a more uniform Apple in the future.

The future

To conclude, Skeuomorphism – like most other things – is appropriate in the right quantities. Whether we want it or not, SM will alway be present in design and we should be happy about that. Just be careful with that Lethal Dose.