I love nothing better than a good word, and skeuomorphs is certainly one of those. See if you can get it into conversation next time you’re out and watch people as they seem impressed by your command of the English language (or as they raise eyebrows and question your command of your faculties).
Skeuomorphs is also a particularly good word because it has an interesting meaning. A skeuomorph you see is a design that is based on a familiar physical object, and often on a defunct one. We come across skeumorphs all the time and sometimes this is done on purpose to help ease the transition to a new technology, while other times it is done completely by accident or due to lack of imagination. Used wisely skeuomorphs can greatly aid us in our web design, whereas used poorly they can severely limit us.
Clocks and Skeuomorphs
If you still aren’t quite sure what I’m talking about, then consider clocks on phones and computers and websites. While many of these are digital – which is arguably the most logical way to design a clock – many of them still have an analogue clock face with digital hands. This is incredibly difficult to program compared to a digital display, and it’s also harder and slower to read. We only use this method of reading time out of what… nostalgia?
This is a good example of a skeuomorph so let’s run with it for now. What makes this even more interesting you see is the fact that regular clocks also needn’t be skeuomorphs. That’s to say that there’s no logical reason for all mechanical clocks to have a face in the same way. You can get some great ‘Alien Tech’ wrist watches these days that are designed to tell the time with swirls, coded lights and other systems, and all of these are far more original but just as effective as regular clocks.
There is a problem of course with these strange watches and that’s that most people can’t read them as quickly without training. Not because they aren’t as efficient, but purely because they aren’t as recognized and we aren’t as used to seeing them. The same goes for a website, you don’t want to completely separate it from what we expect because we would end up not knowing how to use it without a bit of a tutorial – and especially online we don’t have time to be reading tutorials.
The Kindle is a fantastic use of skeuomorphs – it uses an interface very similar to a ‘real’ book and this then allowed many ‘technophobes’ to enjoy using them nevertheless. Such an effect on your website is a desirable thing no doubt.
However a lot of the time we use skeuomorphs without even realizing it and these are bad examples of them. For instance calendars – they always show the whole month on one page which means that come the end of that month you can’t see anything upcoming, only past events. How’s that useful when you could always have the current day be the first one displayed rather than showing lots of things that have been and gone? I had an interesting thought the other day about prosthetic arms and legs… is the human hand actually the optimum configuration for the way we use it these days? Are we being unambitious? Apparently the early Ford cars even including a whip holder on the dash board. Again… not useful.
This then teaches us the importance of being able to separate ourselves from skeuomorphs – and from old fashioned and un-ambitious thinking in general. If you’re designing something, take heed of what’s gone before but don’t be limited by it. And especially in the digital age – with no physical restrictions the sky is very much the limit.