Skeuomorph - Why a Clock Looks Like a Clock

September 15, 2016


If you make a living in Maketing, Design, or Communications, You Need to Understand This Word


A good friend of mine in the UK posted a screen capture to Facebook last week with the following comment:


“Just a thought. How many teens and millennials do you suppose have used a phone handset that looks like the ‘phone' icon?” 

Good question, right? 


What does your idea of a "phone" look like? In my every-day world the “phone experience” looks like an iPhone 6s. But I also take calls through my iPad and pc via native apps and Skype. We haven’t had a “land-line” coming into the house for work or business in nearly a decade.


But even on the screen of my iPhone, there in the lower left-hand corner is a phone handset icon that my 104-year-old grandmother would easily recognize.


This is exactly the point — we all still know what that icon means, right? 


Which bring us to our cool word of the week: Skeuomorph 

Skeuomorph refers to design elements that we retain in products, signage, and elsewhere in our daily lives even though any utilitarian use of those elements has long vanished. Most of the time these are visual cues — things like spoke hubcaps on cars that now have solid wheels, the envelop icon used to send email, and the handed-face of clocks on our digital smartphones.


But they can also be audible like the sound of a ringing bell for telephones and the “hi-low/augmented 4th” pitch of a European ambulance siren. It is reflected in the “shutter sound” your digital camera makes when you take a picture. 


But skeuomorphs can be experienced via all of our senses. It can be tactile like the feel of synthetic leather on a car seat or the “positive click” of Apple’s haptic engine. It is used to make room-fresheners smell the way we imagine that "clean" smells like and why cherry-flavoring is still added to cough syrup. 


What Was Old Is New Again

Your mobile device and a lot of apps have dozens of them. For example, I'm a musician and have several music-related apps on my iPhone. One of them is AmpliTube — an app that let’s me plug my bass guitar directly into my iPhone and play it through my headphones while modeling classic amplifier tones. Note the home screen for this app.


It's designed to “look” like a set of old, 1960s-era analog knobs. This interface is demonstrably less precise and more clunky than a modern visual UI control panel would be. But every “real-world” musician takes one look at that old-school panel and knows what to do. You don't have provide me with a manual or even a demo.


I look, and I don't have to be taught ... I just "know." 


Skeuomorphs come in thousands of forms. But in all cases, they are elements of design added to make us feel comfortable, confident, and intuitive about the product or function using a sensory input, but the element itself retains no "real" bearing on the actual, modern thing being done. It is a method of effectively signaling parts of our brains, emotions, and cultural learning that just can’t be reached easily by any other way.


Some skeuomorphs are universal and enduring — becoming so ingrained that they transform into archetypal and iconic elements lasting eons (think of Grecian columns). Some are very local and temporary — disappearing with the next fashion trend. Now that you are aware of them you might start to notice them almost everywhere around us.


That's the power of a skeuomorph. When done poorly or arbitrarily, they feel odd, old, off-putting, and archaic. When done well, they communicate generations of experience and understanding in ways that are comfortable and hard to "write out" or “teach” via other methods. 


More Fun Facts About the Word Skeuomorphs 


The word comes from the greek words “skéuos” (meaning tool) and “morphé” (meaning shape). So the word "skeuomorph" literally means "shape of the tool." 


Ever shop at Ikea? How many of their products have a thin "wood-grain" veneer? Why do we "like" the look of wood grain today when we have so many other -- and often better -- materials available?


The entire capital of the United States -- Wachington DC -- is one great big skeuomporph. At the time they were designing the city, the acient capitals of Athens and Rome were looked upon as high-points in wisdom and learning. This is why the Capital Building, White House, Lincoln's Tomb, and dozens of other structures use marble columns, finials, and design "capitals" that reflect the Parthenon, the Santa Maria Cathedral de Fiore, and other notable structures from the past. 


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