I’ve admitted before my strange fascination with computer and digital interface design. (Remember “progressive disclosure“? Of course you do.) There’s something intriguing about designing environments that help human users work with highly abstract digital machinery in useful and meaningful ways. In some part, it strikes me as a metaphor for what arts and cultural managers do — connecting audiences and communities with abstract or symbolic meaning. In some part, it’s because I’m a tech nerd.
A digital interface that’s become particularly intriguing of late is skeuomorphism, which is also a pretty awesome word. A skeuomorph is ‘a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.’ In simpler terms, its an effort to make new objects or processes look or feel like their ancestor counterparts. Anyone who uses Apple’s iCal calendar on their computer sees a skeuomorph every day — with the fake leather finish, the fake thread binding, the drop shadow, and the tiny bits of torn pages that recall an old-school paper desktop or wall calendar.
The approach is usually intended to make new systems familiar and comfortable to users. The subtle cues and design elements remind them of the old-style calendar, or phone, or keypad, or whatever, and help them more quickly adapt to using the device or software. Or, a skeuomorph signals quality to those familiar with the older artifact — fake stitching on a vinyl car seat, fake leather or mahogany wood, that slow and analog shutter clicking sound on a digital camera that refers back to the mechanical SLR, the graphic page-turn transition in a digital book. Of course, these indicators have nothing at all to do with the functional quality of the new device.
The challenge about skeuomorphic design is that it can take up extra space and attention, and it can cloud the fact that a device or system is radically more sophisticated and powerful than the original. Further, all the symbolic references to past quality cues don’t mean much if the system itself isn’t elegant and responsive on its own terms.
So, as you wander through your day, keep an eye out for skeuomorphs, not just in your software, but in your physical environment — your venue, your office, your financial reports, your box office procedures and layout, your communications and marketing efforts. If the fake references to prior times are useful to you, your colleagues, or your audiences, keep them. If they’re clouding your view of better ways to work, it might be time for a skeuomorphic Spring cleaning.