In praise of skeuomorphs

I reflected today on the fact that my four-year-old makes a "click" sound when she's playing with a toy camera because that's the MP3 that my phone plays when I take her picture. A number of people pointed out that this is an example of a skeuomorph, "a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original." The Wikipedia entry on the subject's fascinating in the extreme:

* Decorative stone features of Greek temples such as mutules, guttae, and modillions that are derived from true structural/functional features of the early wooden temples
* Ornamental pylons framing modern bridges, such as the twin 89 metre pylons at each end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. They do not support anything, and are there only to frame the structure itself and make it look more like a traditional bridge.
* An early pottery butter churn, at the Jaffa Museum, shaped rather like an American football, imitating the shape of its predecessors, which were made of hide.
* Injection-molded plastic sandals that replicate woven strips of leather
* Artificial film grain added to digitally-shot movies to give a softer, more expensive effect and the expected "shimmer" of the grain pattern between successive frames
* Various spoke patterns in automobile hubcaps and wheels leftover from carriage wheel construction


(Image: Chevy Volt Skeuomorph, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from tylerbell's photostream)


  1. Lens flare in Pixar movies/shorts or any video game is an example I always note.

    Is there a name for sounds that had a meaning, which made it useful in context, but the sound itself is no longer meaningful outside of it’s new context? Better as example: The sound of a record scratching means “sudden unexpected turn of events” or  the “ka-ching” of a  cash drawer (which almost never actually ding any more) meaning “money”?

    1. Lens flares in *any* movie now “add” realism.

      Also jarring was this one convenience store I go to that uses Super Mario-sounding sounds for the register. It’s highly odd.

      1. Hell, even J.J. Abrams fakes his lens flares.  They bugged me in Star Trek, they drove me up the wall in Super 8, and when a colleague of mine revealed that when he worked on an Abrams show they had a lengthy HDCam stock footage reel of nothing but various kinds of CGI lens flares over black to insert into key shots (or, in the case of Super 8, every shot), I flew into a rather unsightly frothing rage.

        1. I hear ya!

          I totally hate it when documentaries about pointy eared and green skinned aliens in faster than light spaceships, shooting each other with laser pistols after jumping out of a matter transmitter get cheapened with such gaudy effects.

      2. Computer games as well. Hell, being able to compute real time lense fares was at one point a very big thing in gaming graphics hardware.

      1. Ah yes, reminds me that games now add motion blur and focusing artifacts to mimic movies. This even tho doing so adds more work for the computer than just rendering it as if it was seen with human eyes.

        1. I was annoyed with Fallout 3, then Fallout: New Vegas, and now Skyrim for the constant irising everytime your view shifts from bright glare to dimly-lit views.  If anything, the effect feels more severe in Skyrim, and can make the game more challenging, but for irritating reasons. It’s troublesome enough that our own eyes do that for us IRL, but when a videogame does it for us at the same time that our eyes are also trying to adjust, it gets headache-inducing.

  2. Well, after all the flack the leather motif  and other skeuomorphs in OS X Lion have got from self-appointed design gurus, it’s nice to see a counterpoint.

    1. It seemed odd to me that out of the dozens of things on a computer’s desktop that are intended to look like something in the real world, people focused so much on the “leather” look of iCal.  Makes you wonder if the complainers secretly work for PETA.

      1. No – the problem with the “leather” look of iCal (and the accompanying even more awful Address Book) is that it sacrifices real utility for the sake of “looking like something you might find on your desk”. The ability to easily see and choose which calendars to display has been lost. The ability to see the available address book groups while looking at the contents of one groups has been lost. These are very real, very useful, and very stupidly left behind because someone decided that making it look like a physical object was more important than making it provide more utility than one.

          1. Except that they’re not unrelated. Those features were removed to make the general appearance of the UI more like the real counterparts, because the real versions don’t have an always-visible nice little set of selectors that you can use to toggle the whole display. Instead, those functions (and some others) were crammed into tiny little buttons (in the case of the address book, onto the sickening skeuomorphic “bookmark-shaped groups button”) and the overall utility reduced.

            I would be even more shocked to discover that they first decided to remove those functions and then made the interface look more like a real object to cover it up.

            No – the real problem here is that they had to remove functionality to accomplish the skeuomorphism. If they didn’t, there would have been far fewer complaints. Nobody objects to the finger-placement nubs on the F and J keys of the iPad keyboard, even though they’re useless, because they don’t remove any functionality either.

  3. The big one 
    skeuomorph is the position of keys on a computer keyboard, an heritage to reduce typing speed to avoid mechanical problems. 

    1. Sort of, but not quite. The QWERTY keyboard layout is, yes, meant to decrease mechanical problems. It isolates common letters that appear next to each other alphabetically. Letter clumping cause old typewriters to jam. This had the effect of *speeding typing up*, not slowing it down.

    2. I don’t consider this a true skeumorph as a keyboard needs a layout. Keeping an established layout is reasonable, even if the reason for that particular layout has become obsolete.

      Unless it can be shown that a particulate layout  *cough* Dvorak *cough*  is vastly better, it makes no sense to establish a new one.

      1. I wonder how difficult it would be to learn Dvorak after 30+ years of touch-typing Qwerty.  I bet it would be easier for those of you who didn’t learn on a manual typewriter.  Thank God no more carbon paper!!!

        1. Thing is, there is no reason why the layout should get changed at all.   That Dvorak its better than QWERTY (or QWERTZ, in my case) has not been shown. The Dvorakites have their faulty studies, the Qwertyans have theirs.  

  4. The big one  skeuomorph is the position of keys on a computer keyboard, an heritage to reduce typing speed to avoid mechanical problems. 

  5. This is actually a massive pet peeve of mine, at least when it comes to architecture and building.

    Fake beams and stone/brick veneer on crappy, half-assed McMansions genuinely piss me off.  And not just because I know people who make a living doing actual timber framing and actual masonry, but because it’s so incredibly dishonest seeming.  

    To take something that’s indicative of quality workmanship that lasts, and to plaster fake versions of it over-top of something that’s pretty much the exact opposite of that… is just so wrong.

    1. Modern houses tend to be horribly-build collections of design cliches. I live in one of these. It’s not pleasant.

      The most honest bit of the house is the back of it, where the windows, like lidless eyes, stare in horror into the lidless eyes of its neighbors.

    2. Worse than veneer and fake beams:

      Needlessly complex “tops,” with dormers and multiple roof-lines and virtually useless bump-outs. (I’m not an architect, so I don’t know most of the actual terms.) These are supposed to make the McMansion look like it has a “history,” as though it was added on to through time. But all that complexity makes the things hard to ACTUALLY add onto, and to MAINTAIN for crimes sake.

    3. When redecorating the old family home, the floor ended up covered with a sheet that looks like wood paneling. To this day people wonder if it is actual panels.

    1. “Sounds a bit like a cargo cult.”

      I don’t see how, the reasons for developing products that look like earlier generation tools is for familiarity, not for any of the reasons why a cargo cult develops or are maintained.

        1. The motivation is entirely different. Cargo cults didn’t reproduce runways because they were familiar; they did it because they thought the runways would bring the cargo that they enjoyed in WWII back. Similarly, while I kind of agree with Gideon’s opinion that fake timbers are tacky, I doubt even the people blessed with more wealth than taste seriously think the fake timbers are holding up their houses; they just think they look neat.

  6. They’re everywhere, in architecture, computers, objects, language, thought… doesn’t make them any less useless and sometimes quite repugnant.

    1. Scads of these are represented in apparel and fashion. Imagine having to lace up those 30 eyelet boots if you didn’t have the zipper running all the way up the side!

  7. One that comes to mind is the stitching on the back pockets of jeans. Once upon a time, I believe, back pockets were lined with an interior pocket of cotton (like the ones in the front) and the stitching was there to keep that inner cotton pocket in place.  Now, it’s purely decorative.

    One could also argue that there is a linguistic analogy with a lot of computer terms like desktop, files, folders, trash/recycle bin, etc. all meant to convey the real world item the computer was emulating.

    “Desktop” always strikes me as particularly weird.  My concept of a computer is well-understood and distinct from my idea of a physical desk, yet I still use a word that dates back to an era when it was meant to help transition people towards an odd new screen-based paradigm by tying the concept back to their familiar physical surroundings.

    I can imagine 30+ years ago, talking to adults, explaining a computer and saying, “think of this machine like your desk. This is the desktop, these are the folders in your file cabinet that hold your files, and this is the trash bin where you put things you no longer need.”  But giving that same speech to a modern child first learning a computer using that same analogy seems odd, yet we still use that language.

    1. Metaphorical/metonymic extension of meaning is by no means a new thing. After all, the word ‘spirit’ originally meant ‘breath,’ and ‘person’ originally meant ‘mask,’ then ‘character in a play.’ What about the ‘hands’ of a clock, or the ‘legs’ of a table, or the ‘horns’ of a dilemma? This sort of exaptation is one of the primary means through which new concepts arise. An interesting example is the word ‘wave,’ which expanded from a phenomenon of water to a more general phenomenon in physics. Perhaps this was a metaphor at first, but now the definition from physics is arguably the basic one, and sea waves just one example.

      1. And this is i find the claim that if Ford had asked people what they wanted, they would respond with “a faster horse”. This because it is being presented as the people being ignorant luddites. But to me it is more a case of running out of words to describe ones inner concept. And in a sense they got a faster horse, one that never tires even. Heh, there are even cases too this day of people using a two wheeled engine to draw the old farm carriage.

    1. Never mind that more and more devices seems to move away from the idea of specifically saving changes, and towards keeping a log of changes in real time that can be rolled back if one did not want the outcome.

  8. A post here a while back described the satisfying thunk of a car door closing, and how it’s now an entirely engineered sound. We can make doors that close absolutely silently, because, technology. But it doesn’t sell cars as well.

    1. I recall watching a show about simulated engine noise. Crazy thing is, putting on the simulated noise of a V8 engine could actually get the driver to behave more aggressively in traffic.

  9. How about

    Choosing WordPress for a tech site makeover when the Web’s übercool are scaled up with Drupal. . . .


    1. I ran into a video in the last couple of days of a reader app that actually used multi touch to simulate various things we do with real book. Things like quickly flipping pages, or holding a finger between one pair of pages while looking at a reference elsewhere.

  10. Some skeuomorphs bug me.  Especially some automotive ones, like Landau bars to make a hardtop resemble a convertible, or plastic hubcaps that include fake plastic lugnuts, which cover the actual steel lugnuts.

    But I wonder what ProTools would look like, for example, if its “mixing board” did not include virtual sliders and pots?  What would that interface look like if it didn’t resemble traditional analog mixing and recording gear?

  11. One word: Steampunk. That may not count though, seeing as it’s a fake throwback from a fake history.

  12. The stone pillars at each end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge were there to support the cranes used to build it; they were built to ‘look pretty’ so they could be left afterwards to save the cost of removing them.  A half-skeuomorph in the wild?

  13. had to wiki it.  it’s pronounced “SKEW-uh-morfs”

    before i got sick of her terrible prose, i remember reading Ayn Rand’s character Roark breaking down the idea of the architectural skeuomorphs outlined in this post–and why he found them ridiculous–in The Fountainhead.  and Design For Market, maybe you’re right, but serifs make reading small type much easier

  14. So a skeuomorph is a transitional design feature used when technological advances outpace people’s ability to accept change. That’s why my phone clicks & whirrs like a film camera, my car doors make a satisfying “thunk” and my keyboard uses a QWERTY layout.

    My first impulse is to say that this concept is retarded, but I suppose I’m just as guilty of clinging to outmoded stuff as anybody else. I’m no luddite, but it’s just human nature to settle on this or that way of doing some things, regardless of the march of technology.

    1. disagree on the camera and car door examples.  not only film cameras “click” when the lens opens and closes.  DSLRs do this too, as it’s how they operate. 
      in the case of cars, higher quality cars thunk because it’s what they do, due to other design constraints and materials. 
      i don’t think these count, as the highest quality examples of new technology still exhibit this behavior.
      same thing with (fake) leather sandals.

  15. Early electric water boilers often looked like the kettles you put on stoves – and consequently, many were put on stoves by unsuspecting house guests.

  16. We noticed a skeuomorph just last night as we waited for our train at Boston’s North Station. The timetable hanging from the ceiling — which shows arrivals/departures, is entirely digital, with an LED display, but when the information is updated, a recording plays of the old leather-wallet-flapping noise from the obsolete Solari boards. Cf.

          1. That there IS a sound, is a functional decision. That the sound chosen was THIS sound, is skeuomorphic.

          2. Hnmmm—-Yes, when we count the click sound on the camera (which has become largely ornamental, since people started not using the view finder anymore) this counts as skeumorphic. 

  17. I read some time ago (and googling it again I found some unreferenced citations of this fact) that in Japan and South Korea the “click” sound on cellphones taking pictures is mandatory by law, intended to let people around know if someone is covertly taking pics. Don’t know if it’s an urban legend though, anyone knows more about it? If true, this is a law-enforced skeuomorfism, like the fake engine noise on electric vehicles in the U.S.

  18. i disagree on the camera example, since the highest quality in current technology (DSLRs) exhibit this behavior.  same thing with real leather sandals (some would argue being the highest of quality/fashion based upon material alone).

  19. “* Artificial film grain added to digitally-shot movies to give a softer, more expensive effect.” Check on iSupr8 for iPhone/iPad2.  

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