Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet


March 2013

By Mike Gould

calendar icon

(Above icon © Apple Computer, no doubt)

Skeuomorphism – there’s a word that stumbles trippingly off the tongue. This term is from the Greek: skeuos, (container or tool), and morphê, (shape), and refers to the design practice of making new technologies look like older tech to ease the adaptation of same by the hoi polloi (the rest of us).

This term goes way back: one example I found online has it that the ancient Greek upper classes had silver cups with distinctive rivets in them. Those who could not afford metal cups used clay cups that often had fake clay rivets molded into them to make them resemble the Greek equivalent of Prada cups.

A classic modern example is the Notepad app on the iPhone; it looks like a yellow legal pad, with ruled lines and a brown edge at the top. An older example would be fake wood grain paneling on the side of a car, which harkens back to even earlier models that actually had wood on the sides (“woodies”), which in turns echoes an era where moving conveyances were actually made of wood. Way, way, before my time, of course. Honest.

This all reflects on a favorite meme of mine, the interaction between new stuff and old stuff. At what point does stuff become old and in the way, and how do we deal with the changes that continually evolving computerware constantly hand us? How can we make the new stuff usable without dragging around a lot of design baggage from the eighties? Now that we have our smartphones, there is less and less interactive real estate available to show controls and the information they evoke. Replacing icons with text is one way to tighten things up.

The Way Things Were
Skeuomorphism (SM) is a trendy term these days, because of changes to Windows 8, and upcoming changes to the Mac OS X. The new Windows interface minimizes SM, favoring a flatter aspect: there are still icons, but they don’t have shadowing, bevels, or other 3-D flourishes currently in favor on the Mac side.

Apple is currently the go-to company for SM; after all, they (mostly) invented the modern desktop with its icons of old fashioned telephone handsets, folders, and such. These were all developed back in the days just prior to the Macintosh computer – icons were developed to clue people to functionality using little pictures of currently-used real-life activities people were used to. You want to call, you pick up a handset; file something, you put it into (drag it) to a folder. It’s called a desktop because it mimics your physical desktop. Personal computers were new, people were getting used to them, and they needed all the help they could get.

30 years later, we pretty much know what a computer does and we don’t need all that much help to figure out which icons do what. So why not do away with them forever? The word “Phone” can be made to take up much less space on a button than a picture of an old-fashioned handset, and what happens when all phones are smart mini-tablets and kids have never seen a handset?

As the Apple Turns
Changes are stirring at Apple as well. Steve Jobs just loved him some skeuomorphs, and was the driving force for such visual joys as the Apple Address Book app, with its faux-leather binding and red placeholder tag. The departure of Apple’s head of iOS (what runs the iPhone and iPad) Scott Forstall was another indication that things are changing. Forstall was a long-time associate of Jobs’, and had a lot to do with the way iPhones and iPads look and feel.

With his ouster, Jonathan Ive is taking over as head of the Apple Human Interface Group. Ive is a hardware guy, first hired in 1992 to design the iMac, and has designed most of the Apple doodads and computers that you are familiar with. He is reported to have hated the look of the SM-influenced notepad and is no doubt sharpening his pencils and polishing his mouse in preparation for some serious shape-shifting of crucial software interface elements. I would be very much surprised if Apple dumps icons altogether, but updates are in order.

The reason I suspect (and hope) that icons aren’t headed the way of floppies, punch cards and one-button mice is a very basic aspect of human vision: we can recognize pictures faster than we can read text. This is one reason that the various Operating Systems (Mac, Windows, etc.) use icons as one way to list files in folders.

If a folder contains only one kind of file, say Word docs, they all have the same icon, so you may as well view them by list, say in date order or alphabetical order. If you have a folder with a bunch of different kind of files, view by icon and you can instantly find what you are looking for (assuming you know what icon is involved, and most people do). Your applications folder is a good example of this.

After all, humans have been dealing with reality pictographically for centuries before writing came along, and we still use icon-based highway signs for this reason.

So I think Ive will come up with some cool new icons, and re-vamp other aspects of the system. Hardly anybody uses the old-style desk calendar seen in the icon at the top of this page. What will replace it? Some serious re-thinking of familiar elements will need to happen to bring us something usable, yet modern.

As a designer myself (web and laser), I am used to conveying information in as few words/pixels as possible, and will be watching this unfolding story with great interest.

Mike Gould is not in shape, let alone skeuomorphic (although he is sometimes fit to be tied), was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 2.2 Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to

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