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Morphing the Skeuo

BuggyIs there any frisson more delicious than the learning of a crown wagongreat new word? OK, don’t answer that. But a great new word is a gift, and I received one last week only to find that it had been passed around certain circles for years.

I refer to skeuomorphism, which I heard as skiomorphism on NPR’s All Things Considered in a discussion of action-movie audio features. We are surrounded, it seems, by skeuomorphism, and a heavy debate continues as to its usefulness. Every time you save your work on the computer to a “folder,” identified Real floppyby a little icon of a sheet of stiff paper folded once so a tab appears at the top, yofloppy_disk_thumbu are making use of a skeuomorphic figure, a design that makes the computer’s action resemble its real-world counterpart of putting sheets of paper away in a manila folder. Though the word wasn’t coined until the late 19th century, its origin is Greek (from the words for container and form) and such design gestures have been going on at least since the Greeks manufactured ceramic cups with bumps shaped to resemble the rivets in the Minoans’ silver cups. Every time we speak of a car’s having horsepower, we are using a skeuomorph; the “wood” paneling on the 1986 Chrysler station wagon was skeuomorphic, echoing the wooden side of a high-class carriage.

Associated with skeuomorphism, in the feature on movie sounds, was reification, a concept I am familiar with: making the abstract real. Marxists talk about reification in terms of God; movie critics talk about it in terms of the whooshing sound made by jets hurtling through empty space (which does not carry sound). In other words, reifying skeuomorphs depict what has never existed, whereas common skeuomorphs depict what existed (and may still exist) but not in the actual configuration at hand. (No horses in a car.)

For millions of computer users, the difference is academic. Most of our students today have never seen the actual floppy disc from which their word-processing programming takes its Save icon. Most understand that the “c” in “Cc” and “Bcc” stands for “copy,” but the extra “c” seems superfluous, because they wouldn’t know carbon paper if it smeared blue ink all over their faces. When I drag items to the Trash, it makes a sound somewhere between crumpling and shredding, but I no longer associate that sound with either of those actions, only with dragging computer icons to the Trash.

The raging debate, which I missed when it began, focuses mostly on Apple’s decision, in its release of iOS 7 in 2012, to abandon much of the skeuomorphism that had been its hallmark: the careful “leather stitching” on its Calendar function, the beauty of the raised “button.” Like Windows, it apparently went finally for a flat design in which the icons just barely pretended to be the things they were reminding us of. As far as this neophyte can tell, however, skeuomorphism remains alive and well, if reduced to line drawings: Skype kindly gives me the choice of an old-fashioned looking movie camera or a phone handset that resembles the one on my Princess phone circa 1978. As Mark Figlozzi of Bizango (my own website designer), wrote to me, “Some designers take ‘clean design’ to mean we should strip away illusions, like the illusion that a button on your screen is a physical object that you can press. Why should a button on a flat glass screen have texture, or cast a shadow, implying it is raised from the rest of the screen, when, in truth, it is flat?” But “then we look at an outlined rectangle and turn up our nose: ‘Ooh, you are still using outlines and rectangles?’”

Now that my eyes and ears are open, skeuomorphism is everywhere. Not only in the lightning charge that signals my computer’s AC connection, not only in the paper-airplane whoosh of the email going out, but also in the thin vinyl strips we paste onto contemporary window panes to make them look like mullions. (I really dislike the look of a nonmullioned pane, don’t you?) Even as any skeuomorphic design will eventually veer toward the abstract — my own website “bookshelf” is a mere gesture compared to iBooks’s wood-grained “shelving” — we find the anchor of the skeuomorph reassuring. Figlozzi writes, “Maybe one day the pendulum of opinion will swing back just a little. Not back to the days of faux leather stitching, maybe. But maybe we’ll once again acknowledge that there is some part of us that looks at the digital environment and craves a hint of the physical world.”

After all, isn’t language itself skeuomorphic? The words we use made up of words designating things (the real container, the three-dimensional form) that may no longer operate as they did in the past? And yet how useful that past is. Without it, what icons would we use? What words?

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