Skeuomorphism And Crime: A Historical Perspective On Reactionary Design

Between late 2012, when Jony Ive replaced Scott Forstall as the lead of Human Interface at Apple, and the release of iOS 7 at the end of 2013, there was an explosion of writing online about what these developments meant for the design powerhouse and, as a consequence, for the future of product and software design in general. As many of these articles outlined, Forstall was the last executive torchbearer for the visual approach to which Steve Jobs subscribed, a metaphor-heavy style intended to surround the user with familiar-feeling objects and interactions: lined notebook paper, wooden bookshelves, raised calculator buttons. With Ive’s ascension and the release of his flat and minimal iOS 7, the blogosphere was calling it the end of an era at Apple and the death of something they called skeuomorphism.

The word “skeuomorphism” was pulled so suddenly from relative academic obscurity into clickbait headlines that, looking cursorily around the web, one might conclude that the term merely identifies a design trend, and one virtually synonymous with Apple’s old, kitschy iOS. In truth, skeuomorphs are about as old as design itself. As defined by Oxford, a skeuomorph is “an object or feature that imitates the design of a similar artifact made from another material,” and this shift from one material to another hints at the core historical utility of skeuomorphic design: transition through technological change. Preservation of the familiar through technological change can be seen across history. Millennia ago, ancient Lycians carved the ceilings of their stone tombs in the shape of timber poles; today, millennials click on images of floppy disks to save their homework to the cloud. At some point in their history, these vestigial traces mapped a new or unfamiliar world to a known one. Whether primarily for hedonic or pragmatic purposes, these links were important to the human experience of these designs.

But empathy for the timid novice is not often the only reaction designers exhibit in response to societal or technological change. History has shown that, as technology matures, culture can quickly snap from a nervous grip on the past to a belligerent grasping at the future. For example, as modern material manufacture matured and expanded in the early 20th century, Modernist architecture rallied against the decoration and metaphor of historicist styles and embraced slogans like “ornament is crime” and “truth to materials.” Similarly, since the purported death of digital skeuomorphism a few years ago, there has been a feverish rush towards so-called “flat” design and some denouncement of “real-world” visual metaphor. But in reaction to the perceived conservatism of the past, the forward-looking creators risk looking past the very people for whom they’re creating. Can we expect a Pruitt Igoe moment for flat user interface?

In highlighting these patterns of history, the goal is not to belittle the merit or contributions of various design movements or trends across history, but to show how these movements’ relationships to the past and future reflect phases of technological progress. As technology changes, so will tastes and values, but history-aware architects, designers, and UX professionals should expect these vacillations and remember that familiarity and metaphor have their place in design, especially in new or strange territory. As the culture in turn adopts or reacts against the latest styles and fashions, we should ever be mindful not to toss out the time-tested utility of user-centered affordances with yesterday’s design trend bathwater.