Skeuomorphism Isn’t Dead
Skeuomorphic design may have fallen out of fashion, but it’s still a useful way to help users understand a product
Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly: Skeuomorphism — aside from being a great 50-cent word — is the use of an object or feature that “retains nonfunctional ornamental design cues (attributes) from structures that were inherent to the original.” The digital product world is full of examples: a folder, shopping cart, phone, button, and so forth.
In the early days of the web, many digital products were designed by closely imitating their physical-world equivalents. This approach unnecessarily limited their digital potential; what could have been reimagined products were instead restricted to the largely arbitrary confines of their predigital structures. The possibilities of a “hierarchically structured digital storage container” are limitless; calling it a “folder” inherently orients our cognitive conception of file storage around preexisting physical models.
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan described this tendency as the “horseless carriage syndrome.” When cars were first invented, this new thing was literally just as it was named: a carriage without a horse. Steering was via a tiller. The driver sat absolutely forward, in the position of the coachman, ready to guide the absent horses. Narrow, wooden, spoked carriage wheels and suspension were designed for the maximum speed of a horse, not a combustible engine. The top was made of soft material; safety was nonexistent. It took many iterations before the horseless carriage escaped largely conceptual constraints and became an automobile.
Nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than in the digital medium. It took years before a “document” became something that could be edited, viewed, shared, and commented on by multiple people at the same time. (The Google Doc represented a paradigm shift in digital collaboration.) The initial product concept of a document was limited by lingering physical world notions: A document is a concrete thing, owned by one person. That person could make a “copy” and “mail”…