What are skeuomorphs, and why do we need them in our lives?

We are surrounded by objects modelled on older technologies, connecting the past with the present and making change easier to deal with

Put on the kettle, pick up your phone. Swipe to unlock, scroll down, click on the camera icon, snap a picture of your dog looking like he’s having a deep philosophical thought … And congratulations! You’ve just experienced at least five skeuomorphs without even trying. Chances are you’re surrounded by many more.

The shape of your kettle, the swiping movement that emulates the turning of a page, the tapping sound of a touchscreen keypad, the click of a camera that has no mechanical moving parts: skeuomorphs are those things that lean on past objects or technologies to help make the transition to the new smoother, more palatable.

Faux leather and simulated wood are skeuomorphs, and they’re doubly, sometimes unforgivably so when they appear digitally on your homescreen or in apps. That icon on your desktop that looks like an old-fashioned paper calendar, the font that emulates handwriting, the speaker symbol: they’re all skeuomorphs.

The term comes from Greek: skéuos (container or tool) and morph (shape), and it’s interesting to start noticing many of our ultra-modern technological terms are extreme skeuomorphs too. Just think of what icons and scrolls once were, or the literal, Jules Verne-esque image conjured by the idea of a spaceship.

It’s not all about faking it either. The need to retain some memory of the past in the present, even when there has been a complete shift in material or technology, is actually pretty timeless and, therefore, obviously deeply human.

When ancient Greek builders made the transition from wood to stone, they mimicked some of the properties of the wood in their carvings. Today we see architects and designers making the shuttering for concrete from knotty and grained wood, to reproduce those patterns in the finished object. We feel comforted by a sense of history as we innovate – even when it’s something as nasty as fake bolts or rivets on moulded plastic chairs.

Backlash

Sometimes the pace of innovation throws up what can appear to be absurd backlashes – such as actor Tom Hanks’s iPad app, launched in 2014. The Hanx Writer mimics an old-fashioned typewriter. You get the click-clack, you even get the ding at the end of a line.

Often it’s more than just a gimmick, however. Digital pens that are designed to look like pencils actually help with accessing your creativity. The act of sketching comes from our right, creative brain, while computers activate our left, logical brain. This means it is unsurprising that those of a certain generation prefer to hold something that looks like a pencil to help them to most directly channel their musings.

It’s worth wondering, though, if the generation of children who have grown up swiping (not as in stealing sweets, but manipulating touch screens) will need the prop of a pencil-styled object to tap directly into their right, imaginative brains.

That thought raises the question of how much skeuomorphs actually hold us back. Cars are perhaps the perfect example, their design origins given away by one word: horsepower.

What might a car look like if it hadn’t been a steady transition from a horse drawn carriage? What would we be driving, or even hovering about in, if early cars had been designed by someone who had never seen a landau or a coach?

This was a question that Jony Ive, designer of the original iMac, picked up on when he became chief design officer at Apple, and after he took over some software designs from the departing Scott Forstall (a dedicated skeuomorph fancier).

At the launch of the mainly skeuomorph-free iOS 7, Ive said that by now people had become comfortable touching glass, and so no longer needed physical buttons, or fake shadows to imply three dimensionality, “so there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally”, he said.

With that, tech articles the world over predicted the death of skeuomorphism, and then, just a year and a half later, along came the Apple Watch. And the Apple Watch has: yes, you got it, a clock-dial-style face.

Obviously this is partially to nudge the more mature (or retro-loving) among us into adopting the new technology, but it also follows the idea, borrowed from behavioural psychology, of affordances. An affordance is the clue, or clues, an object gives to its use. The more clear the clues, the more intuitively people will be able to operate your new gizmo.

Innovation

Once again, that’s both good and bad when it comes to innovation. Yes, the references enable us to readily grasp how to use the new piece of technology or equipment, but they also, by extension, limit its use in our minds, anchoring it to that original source.

Maybe it is time for all of us, designers and end-users, to keep a space in our hearts and minds for the absolutely new – and embrace some things that look and act like nothing we’ve ever seen before. If it doesn’t work out for us, we can always cover them in skeuomorphs again . . .