Word: SkeuomorphAfraid of change? Make new things look like old ones.

Word: SkeuomorphAfraid of change? Make new things look like old ones.

Computer interface designers use skeuomorphs liberally. The floppy disk “save” symbol and clipboard “paste” button are both examples.

Etymology: Henry Colley March, a British physician and amateur archaeologist, devised the word in 1889 by combining the Greek skeuos, which means container or implement, with morphē, a reference to shape.

Meaning: In an age deeply preoccupied with ornament, March offered a handy term for a common but often awkwardly described kind of decoration. “The forms demonstrably due to structure require a name,” he wrote. “If those taken from animals are called zoomorphs and those taken from plants phyllomorphs, it will be convenient to call those derived from structure skeuomorphs.” The lion foot at the base of a chair leg is a zoomorph, and a foliated wrought iron gate is a phyllomorph. But a skeuomorph? In archaeology, the word refers to an inherent or functional aspect of an older object that has survived as an ornament in a newer version—a basket pattern on a ceramic container, or carpentry details on a stone temple.

Skeuomorphs are still ubiquitous. The flickering of an LED candle flame, the digital speedometer dial on a new car’s dashboard, the variegated swirls of plastic tortoiseshell glasses, the shutter click of a phone camera—all skeuomorphs, all ornamental manifestations of what was unavoidably present in an earlier version. As with most design choices, these anachronisms can generate controversy. What may seem disturbingly fake to some is comfortingly retro for others. Anthropologist John H. Blitz points out that “encounters with unfamiliar innovations trigger different emotional responses… some people may not want the same old objects, but others do not wish to relinquish the associated positive emotions… skeuomorphs are part of the social process that resolves this innovation dilemma.” They can make new technologies reassuringly familiar, even if their appearance seems gratuitously decorative.

The role of skeuomorphs played out vividly in 2013 when Apple flattened parts of its phone and computer interfaces. Suddenly the word entered everyday conversation just as some familiar skeuomorphs disappeared—3D buttons became colored circles, the notepad app no longer looked like a pad of paper, and reading an e-book didn’t require flipping over digital pages anymore.

John Brownlee, an editor for Cult of Mac, sneered at these “tacky design crimes” and was happy to see them go, but not everyone agreed. Gizmodo’s Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan countered that “skeuomorphism is not a design crime. It marks the settling of new technological frontiers.” Clearly, these functional ornaments can outlast their usefulness but skeuomorphs often conveniently hint at what new tools have to offer.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 33

Want to enjoy full access? Subscribe Now

Subscribe Discover unlimited access to Kinfolk

  • Four print issues of Kinfolk magazine per year, delivered to your door, with twelve-months’ access to the entire Kinfolk.com archive and all web exclusives.

  • Receive twelve-months of all access to the entire Kinfolk.com archive and all web exclusives.

Learn More

Already a Subscriber? Login

Your cart is empty

Your Cart (0)