Reflections on Skeuomorphism


Reflections on Skeuomorphism

Everyone talks about it: skewomorphism. It is a new word, but an old dynamic and a mouth full of words:

“If a derived object retains ornamental design features of a structure that was originally required, Skeuomorphs can be deliberately used to make the new look old and familiar.” Says Wikipedia. For example: a plastic silver that tries to look like its metal counterpart (using metal ink and / or grooves that are present on the original piece, but not essential for the item to function now). Some just call it … decoration.


The above description applies to physical skew morphism. In digital skew morphism, properties or elements of real life objects are inherited and used in digital interfaces to give users a sense of familiarity. For example: recesses on wood or metal textures (or even materials such as metal and wood), paper and lines on a digital editor (such as that of Basecamp), textures (like the leather on iCal) and the switch-type buttons we use on our ply CMS.

As always, some do not like it, some are for skeuomorphs. For example, many argue that Apple should stop the skew morphism in its software. But should not it be about the goal of controlling the app or website? Adding familiar elements to a user interface can provide an identification point where users can engage. This can speed up acquaintance with the tool and increase the likelihood that more people will use it. When something is completely new and different, the learning curve is steeper and it is harder for users to find a place to rest and concentrate. enough to encourage a next step. It is common for exceptionally new things that the mind likes to avoid it altogether.

A SIDETRACK note on “The Spiritual Avoidance of the New”

Perhaps you have heard of it, but many do not know how it can be: When the boats of the European conquerors came to the New World, they discovered that the natives did not see the huge galleons anchored some distance from the beach – though fully visible – but they saw the small boats coming out and bringing the Europeans to the beach. The locals knew the small boats – maybe closer to their canoes – but they missed the larger boats altogether. It is well known that the mind concentrates on what it has been trained on, and it is difficult to concentrate on what it has no knowledge of (though training is quite possible).

So we tend to see only a small part of the whole; and ignore what it is unfamiliar. For example, you learn a new word and then see it from scratch, but that’s never happened before you even knew it.

Skeuomorphs, which serve as a familiar clue, allow the mind to focus and pay attention.


Back to our discussion of skew morphism … I also wonder if the digital skew is used that way, because life outside the screen is incredibly diverse with its textures, colors, smells, shapes, light, shadows, and sounds. Screen is not. It’s like putting someone in a palace full of luxury in a hut. You will miss the luxury of first life and probably try to compensate it somehow. (Google the movie Trading Places?) I think in the same way, we compensate with skepticism the lifelessness of digital life.

We see the digital life (well, code: think of DOS) as being more impersonal, difficult to identify with (I can not say it’s negative or positive, it’s just that). Are not we trying to balance the cozy, comfortable little things we know from real life into the digital world? We know the reactions that these things cause, and we like them. In this way, we can transfer analogue, emotional experiences through digital metaphors (skeuomorphisms) to digital devices and make them “tastier”. (That is, did you notice that we inserted “ringtones” into our cell phones that sound very similar to the old phones if we could have done something else?).

Family and obvious work, right?

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

We know that the brain works less when it has found a routine. And it works more when confronted with something completely new – in other words, it has to think. For the most part, I have observed that people tend to get involved in one or the other side of this topic. On the one hand is the group of “Do not let me think” (the book?); and, on the other hand, people who are ahead of their time (to varying degrees), who can only be innovative. My guess is that the first group is bigger than the later one.

I think, “Do not let me think” (or keep everything skeuomorphic and familiar) often works. Most of humanity is more conservative and “obvious” works well for most people. And I do not mean “conservative” in the political sense. I mean, when it comes to less resistance, or when it comes to the obvious – which is sometimes called boring, but sometimes can actually be smart. This has to do with how we evolved.


OK, so we know familiar works. But then there is the question: if only we keep everything too comfortable all the time, will we have problems changing things that we want to change? In fact, I think it’s nonsense to be exposed to things that are always too obvious (I’ve actually seen that happen). There is a lot of research into how creativity is born to underpin it (the brain is trained when there is a learning curve). Let’s make it clear that I do not evangelize a learning curve all the time (that would be stressful!). On the contrary, life is always easier without a learning curve. The rule of thumb for promoting creativity and keeping your brain sharp is learning something new every day. At its core, skeuomorphism is an attempt to reduce this learning curve.


And that leads us to avoid skepticism altogether in order to be innovative. I know it’s hard and scary to hear that, but it has to be done. But here are the problems. Innovation is almost always associated with discomfort. Everyone says they want to be innovative, but rarely do they want to overcome the inconvenience. As a rule, red flags are raised, potentials are not seen and ideas are killed too soon. It is a vicious circle that only brings us back to what already exists. That’s okay sometimes. But every now and then (or more often) I think we have to go beyond that.


In my understanding, the answers to these questions are no and no. Although some of the discussions on this topic have been dualistic (bad or good, and go away or stay), I do not think this is the way to do it.

As I’ve tried to illustrate above, Skeuomorphs exist because of a need, and they work! I do not say that lightly, as my natural propensity is more for innovation. But you can not go against the reality of the human brain. For me, this need is strongly related to the transition from old to new. And it often works with this usage. What happens is that the transition is complete at some point and Skeupmorphs are outdated.

In particular, over the last 20 years as a civilization, we have moved from a purely physical life to a life that also has a digital side. Skeuomorphs support this transition. But now we have a generation that has grown up completely digitally, and since they are not so much referring to the Skeumorphs, they do not need a transition. It is only natural that these and their related generation will begin to question the skew morphs of our time. I have no doubt that sooner or later these Skeuomorphs will disappear, as more of us are now better acquainted with the addition of a digital life and are more comfortable with it. The paradigm is officially changed when the last generation, born in a non-digital life, has disappeared. How in 40-50 years? Until then, the skeptmorphs of our time will slow down.

But as long as the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčtime (and memory) exists, there will always be something new and old, and the old will always have to move into the new. In my view, as long as these cycles exist, new skeuomorphs will be used, using memory as a tool to introduce the new through the old. And at the end of each cycle change drastically (or not). Even nature evolves in slow, long cycles, followed by intense, sharp changes.


If you forgive me for becoming Buddhist, my personal, simplified way of dealing with it is to follow the “middle path.” This middle, smarter way is customization as needed. It is important to be aware of the problem as you approach each project (to accelerate the paradigm shifts that we want). Maybe we can sort projects loosely into the following categories, depending on the short requirements of each project:

Use Skeuomorphs: If much security is required, do not risk it. We still have to make money, right?

Go Hybrid: A safe place to play with innovations.

Be purely digital: Certain metaphors can still be used (patterns, such as hatchings) if there is a reason for that, and therefore are not skew morphos themselves. Being free from relationships with other things will create more creativity and certainly bring about innovation. Innovation, if done right, is like a jackpot. Pure digital is the approach of the new Windows 8 user interface.

That may sound obvious, but when we think about it in advance, we become aware of the possibilities that exist when making decisions about using or not using skew morph. In other words, it prevents us from falling into the traps of familiarity and allows us to make more objective decisions, depending on the results we want to achieve (innovation, completeness or a little bit of both).

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