Skeuomorph. It’s one of those words you have to look up several times before you can remember it. For those unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia defines it nicely: “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.” Some of the examples the entry cites are helpful: fake stitching on a plastic product once made of leather, spokes in an automobile hubcap, or, one of my own bugbears, tiny, useless handles on small maple syrup jugs.
Why should publishers care about skeuomorphs? Because as they shift themselves and their products into the digital age, one of the most important questions they must ask is whether to evoke the functionality of the old forms of their output or leap wholly into the new ones. There isn’t a single right answer. But if they don’t ask the question, they will probably get it wrong.
Though it deals with computer user interface design rather than publication design, one of the most helpful discussions of skeuomorphism I’ve read is from John Siracusa’s landmark review of OS X Lion. In it, he describes the odd nostalgia of Apple’s design of its iCal and Address Book applications. They evoke the look of their old analog counterparts so faithfully that they include stitching, torn paper, and a leather look. Though it might give users a sense of familiarity, the look actually impairs functionality, as Siracusa says of the Mac calendar:
Usually, each page contains a month, but there’s no reason for a virtual calendar to be limited in the same way. When dealing with events that span months, it’s much more convenient to view time as a continuous stream of weeks or days.
Even worse, says Siracusa, is Apple’s Address Book, which “goes so far in the direction of imitating a physical analog that it starts to impair the identification of standard controls.”
For traditional, analog publishers, the most immediate application of skeuomorphism is to the process of going digital. As I noted last week, one challenge for companies like Ziff Davis Enterprise in going digital-only is whether they should retain the old functional metaphors of print—the page turns, the layouts, the display ads—or drop them in favor of inherently digital functionality.
But even for natively digital publishers, functionality will evolve, perhaps more rapidly than ever. As new ways of delivering and presenting content arise, will they look backwards and mask the new with the familiar veneer of the old? Or will they look resolutely forward and ask readers to adjust to the new in order to gain its full benefits?
The point here is not that skeuomorphism is inherently bad. It can be a useful and even compelling way to help people understand new functionalities. But in going digital, you need to consider the difference between when looking backwards is really helpful and when it’s just a sentimental gesture. So on your next digital product design, don’t just think different—think skeuomorph.