Skeuomorphism in Modern Design: Apple’s Overhaul Sheds Light on Fascinating Concept

What do iPhones, cigarettes, and the floppy disk icon we click on to save a file have in common? All of them contain examples of skeuomorphism – design elements that are not functional or necessary, but that mimic older designs. Throwbacks like the brown “cork” pattern surrounding a cigarette filter or the long-obsolete floppy disk used to represent a virtual act are deliberately utilized to create a sense of comfort with the old and familiar. Similarly, in creating the iPhone’s interface, Steve Jobs and company employed a host of ornamental features to give users a sense of vintage comfort with the tried and true. For better or for worse, that might be changing soon.

Apple’s new executive of software development, Jonathan Ive, has made abundantly clear that he is not impressed by such skeuomorphs as the wooden bookshelf image that houses e-books or the camera click emitted when users take a photograph. While Steve Jobs was a strong proponent of all manner of skeuomorphs, his successor aims to take a “fresh” approach to interface design. This potential overhaul has drawn both praise and criticism: while people within and without the company have extolled the aesthetic virtues of Apple’s faux-leather calendars and textured “linen” background, many others have claimed that these are inane anachronisms that do not belong in the context of advanced technology.

Apple is far from the only user of skeuomorphs. Derived from the Greek skeuos, meaning vessel or tool, and morphe, meaning shape, this phenomenon has been popular for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks, for example, incorporated numerous architectural elements reminiscent of wooden structures into their stone columns – not because it continued to be structurally necessary to do so, but because it was perceived to be aesthetically pleasing. This has been the case throughout history – from mass-market items made from cheap products overlain with a faux wood or metal veneer, to clothing pockets with no seeming capacity to hold items. Whether Apple will be able to successfully do away with the skeuomorphs that hearken back to bygone times and still continue to satisfy its customers remains to be seen.

Graphic © ALTA Language Services

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