Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

How We Started Calling Visual Metaphors “Skeuomorphs” and Why the Debate over Apple’s Interface Design is a Mess

"Hm," says Professor Dan O'Hara in response to my first email asking for a comment, "Apart from noting that 'skeuomorphic design' is an oxymoron?"

I've emailed him because I'm writing about a supposedly universal complaint over the design of Apple's iOS software: that apps which look like old technologies such as a compass or notepad are "skeuomorphic" since there is no need to render them that way on a modern device. But from the first point of contact onwards it becomes clear that the popular debate needs a reboot.

It was Dan O'Hara (Twitter handle: @skeuomorphology), I should say, who first introduced me to the term "skeuomorphism". As an academic he's published a string of papers and conference speeches on the subject and was described by the Guardian this year as a "philosopher of technology". Recently, he has published a new co-edited volume: Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J. G. Ballard, 1967-2008.

With the departure of Scott Forstall from Apple's inner circle at the end of last month and the installation of eminent industrial designer Jonathan Ive in his old role, commentary over Apple's use of what everyone has been calling "skeuomorphism" for the last two years went nuclear. Forstall was immediately decided to be the sole progenitor of kitsch aesthetics in current iterations of iOS and his departure, apparently as longed-for as the demise of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West, supposedly signifies that, to quote Gigaom, "Skeuomorphism is (finally) dead."

It is unnecessary to point out that these hyperactive assertions are anything but simplistic and premature. Whatever changes are to be made are likely to be gradual and unlikely to be imminent.

Still, the fundamental issue here hasn't very much to do with who pulls which strings inside Apple, but much more to do with the popular use of an exotic and complex word: skeuomorphism. And that's why I went to Prof O'Hara for comment.

"What's being called 'skeuomorphic' is not at all skeuomorphic"

O'Hara's position is clear. His belief is that the word is being misused en masse. "What's being called 'skeuomorphic' is not at all skeuomorphic," he contends. "They're kitsch visual metaphors, but they're not the unintentional side-effects of technological evolution. In every case in the Apple UI debate, a designer is consciously responsible for the metaphor. Might be bad taste, but that's all."

He also believes that the Wikipedia entry for "skeuomorph" is "mostly rubbish," describes the online Oxford Dictionary definition as confusing and explains that skeuomorphs are in fact things, like ornamental pot handles or human fingernails, which appear over time in later iterations of objects or species. Significantly, they are directly descended from an original functionality. As such, if decorative qualities emerge, they do alongside the skeuomorph's inherent redundancy.

Are you with us? The key point is that a skeuomorph, in the strict academic sense, cannot be designed into a new technology. In an already existing technology, though, skeuomorphs can certainly arise and become ornamented. However, the skeuomorph proper, being an accidentally evolved feature, must exist behind and before that ornamentation.

You are therefore unlikely to be able to find any skeuomorphs appearing on retina displays any time soon. The calculator app that looks like a calculator hasn't evolved from said calculator into the belly of your iPhone - the inherent properties and structure of the original calculator have no direct relevance whatsoever to the computer programming which makes the calculator app possible. And, in addition, its "buttons" serve the same function as the physical calculator's buttons. The very notion of "button" here hasn't lost its function and become ornamental - it's simply been transcribed into a visual metaphor.

"Very well," you may say, "but hasn't the word, then, simply evolved a public life of its own with an alternate meaning? Can't 'skeuomorphism' these days just refer to the style choices Apple has made in recent years?" Sure it can. Except there's a problem with that too.

If you Google "skeuomorphic design" you'll get about a hundred thousand results. Most of them, from the second one down (the first being the Wikipedia entry) refer specifically to Apple.

Something strange occurred a few years ago as the term became more widely used. It quickly turned synonymous with Apple's characteristic design choices. This is a good example of a 2010 forum thread in which "skeuomorphism" was introduced in this sense. Regardless of when, the deployment of the word quickly gave wheels to the fashion for rejecting iOS styles as over-dependent on the aesthetics of analogue technologies.

As kitsch, nostalgically rendered interfaces, Apple apps developed a unique style of their own and critics ostensibly desired a way to refer to that style while sounding as sophisticated as possible. In heated online debates over companies as widely discussed as Apple, it helped to throw outlandish words like "skeuomorphism" into your anti-(or pro-)iOS forum scribblings since it gave the impression that you were embedded within the discourse, even controlling it and, naturally, one step ahead of the many people for whom the term was completely alien. Hence the popularity of this attractive yet somewhat irrelevant word in the most popular design debate of recent years.

Skeuomorphic Notepad

In pointing out how interfaces could be better without so-called skeuomorphism, commentators frequently point to examples like Windows 8. This is amusing given the origin of the Windows system as a platform full of conceptual "window" metaphors and the rise of "tiles" in this latest iteration of the software.

This lengthy article by Tom Hobbes for Fast Company attempts to get right into the nitty gritty differences between iOS and Windows 8. Hobbes seems conscious of the fact that both systems rely on metaphor yet he labels Apple's product "skeuomorphic" and not Microsoft's.

Where is the line drawn, exactly? Do we just decide, arbitrarily, that a certain amount or kind of visual metaphor is what we agree to call "skeuomorphic"? The problem there is that visual metaphors are sometimes very useful and designers, not least Jony Ive, may be left wondering how to respond to popular condemnation of those metaphors instead of thinking of what may be, objectively speaking, the best way to design a given interface.

Think of the "folder" icon on many operating systems like Windows 7. As you are aware, it is a picture of a filing cabinet folder. Aha! Skeuomorph! Well, no, it's just a metaphor. And what's more, it's a damn useful one, since it provides a handy visual representation of the concept at hand - a place to store files.

Since people like to move folder icons about with ease, arrange them on their desktops and place folders within folders, it makes sense to represent each directory using an icon that's suitably click-able and drag-able. It also provides a non-verbal instruction to the user who, for the first time, is trying to work out what the icons on their screen mean.

At what stage do we point at something like the folder icon, which we all surely know and love, and despise it for being a "skeuomorph"?

"The really problematic aspects of iOS are not to do with aesthetics but organisation and functionality"

One of the more helpful blog posts written in the wake of Scott Forstall's departure from Apple was this one by a self-professed "veteran design and management surgeon" who goes by the online alias "Kontra". Although he or she follows the popular definition of "skeuomorphism" more or less unthinkingly, Kontra is unique in pointing out that the really problematic aspects of iOS are not to do with aesthetics but organisation and functionality. Designers, instead to listening to fashionable censure of individual styles, would do well to heed Kontra's call for more careful implementation of processes and methods.

Where Apple's designs have sacrificed functionality for metaphorical form, I completely agree that dissonance has occurred. Why design a media player program (such as Quick Time 4.0) so that it is less easy to use because it looks like a physical consumer product? But then again, a beautifully designed app like 76 Synthesizer is a joy to behold and use. Suddenly the "skeuomorphism"/visual metaphor = bad equation starts to look a little weak.

Design is a sibling to fashion, but that doesn't mean it is unable to rebel. Indeed, some would say it is disposed to. What the "skeuomorphism" debate has shown is that fashions can blind us when fancy words and popular discourse overtake the impetus to evaluate on a more molecular level. While many of Apple's design choices are, in my opinion at least, lacking in taste, the graphic artists at rival companies who strive to produce the opposite aesthetic effect should ask themselves this question: Has stylistic divergence led to a better interface experience, or just a different one?

If the furore over what people have dubiously referred to as "skeuomorphism" demonstrates anything, it's that as a supposedly well-informed public, we don't seem to ask questions like that often enough.

UPDATE: I wrote a response to the launch of iOS 7 (the design of which is openly a reaction to all of this "skeuomorphism" business). You can read it here. 13/06/2013.


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