Here’s the thing about skeuomorphism

A few weeks ago I kept seeing articles talking about this issue of skeuomorphism in design. Never hearing of the word until then, I needed to really chew on it in order to come up with some conclusions on why this practice has really taken a hold in the industry.

I’ll leave it to Tom Hobbs of Fast Company to explain what the hell that big scary word even means:

“Derived from the Greek words Skeuos, meaning vessel or tool, and morph, meaning shape, a skeuomorph is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, a “derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.” The term can apply to either a physical or digital creation. In other words, it means to replicate the form and material qualities of something that are no longer inherently necessary, all with the objective of making new designs “look comfortably old and familiar,”

Next, in order to understand anything in this post, you’re going to have to familiarize yourself with these:

Skeu It!

Can We Please Move Past Apple’s Silly, Faux-Real UIs? | Co.Design: business + innovation + design

Toxic Nostalgia | Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

Now that we’re all on the same page, here are my considerations on the issue of skeuomorphism:

1) The fear that we are not creating with the future in mind; but instead, we sentimentally cling to the past.

I see this as a ‘forrest for the trees’ argument. To understand our culture as we’re currently involved within it is to be blind to the overall context of our culture in the grander scheme of things. It’s true that right now we are especially embroiled in a thick layer of nostalgia, but from the Imprint article: “We are especially nostalgic for the mechanical”. I see this yearning for the tactile as our own way of dealing with the uncomfortable nature of ‘transition’. More and more the world in which we live is filled with a digital detachment. It seems really obvious to me that as humans we would want to recreate what’s missing in our daily lives to fill that void. If it’s subconsciously leaking into our digital designs, then perhaps it’s less of a visual problem and more of a cultural/sociological one. I’m not convinced we fully understand the implications of switching our interactions and connections to a solely digital existence; how can we when the technology has only been around since 1999/2000, and only really picking up prevalence within recent years.

Another argument the Imprint article presents is that designers are simply re-combining old styles with little care or thought.  When it comes to revisiting visual styles to suit a new purpose, I understand it under the adage “necessity is the mother of creativity (or invention)”. It’s only when we’ve exhausted all that we currently know that we begin to search for the new. It’s in that magic space that new concepts are bridged- and yes- sometimes it happens when you’re bouncing between two seemingly disparate ideas.

Wasn’t the automobile first referred to as a ‘horseless carriage’? The radio first referred to as a ‘wireless’, and even though we use the same term today, it has totally different connotations. We understand new technology only in relation to how we understand our current world.

2) Skeuomorph design as a form of visual masturbation

Not sure which article uses it, definitely read it, and I think it’s definitely an interesting point. It speaks more to the role of ‘designer’ within the industry, but an interesting point nonetheless. It’s been my experience (and I would welcome hearing otherwise, I truly would) that when you’re in the designer’s role, not an art director, but a designer, you’re a designated “maker”. Your job is to execute the concept provided, to the tune of the client’s and creative director’s aesthetic– whoever that happens to be. The conceptual and visual decisions are amalgamated across a sea of opinions, and the designer’s little job is to ‘nail it’. It’s a tough window indeed. When your task is that small and that specific, the only choice you’ve got is to design with all of your might and make the best little microsite/app/newest jargon on the block you can! If that means creating falsely tactile knobs and doodads, that’s what that means. The client won’t care that their project doesn’t change the status quo of user interface design, and the creative director will be so focused on usability and accessibility across the desired demographic that it will seem unnecessary to challenge any set standards. Not every project or client is right for the springboard of visual innovation, but I do think the design/creative side has more of a responsibility to lead to that springboard. The client turns to the agency for the suggestions, so the agency should have more accountability when creating those suggestions; totally seeing that, but don’t just blame the designer. Only now, when I am the only person on this two-person team that can use Adobe software, is my role the creative director all the way to production designer; and even then– the client and Jake very much have a say.

3) The arbitrary nature of skeuomorph choices

This one definitely goes out to the Tumblr. It might not be true of all cases, but I’m going to attribute this one to “Monkey See, Monkey Do”. The design education should prepare the fresh designer with a set of skills not just in terms of Photoshop, Illustrator and the like, but a set of conceptual problem solving skills. The types of skills that make certain suggestions work and certain ones ridiculous. When you begin to throw crowd-sourcing into the mix, that standard quickly gets thrown right out the window and it becomes an arms race of who can make what where and how fast can it be finished. That’s where things like this social media tag-as-log-in thing come in. While it looks okay, it doesn’t make practical sense, and yes that matters, or it can matter. Design’s funny like that.

Moving on!

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say there’s someone passionate about design but without any formal training. They inundate themselves with inspiration sites, practice crafting images and compositions, they even study photoshop tutorials on how to do special tricks. What they’re missing is the conceptual framework to put these tools to practical use. They’ll be able to replicate a steady set of skills, but will not be able to understand the implications of choice in how to apply those skills. Design is far more than a visual solution; that’s just the end result. The leg work begins at what you’re communicating, continues onto how that is communicated, and finishes with how that all becomes a reality. There’s so many subtle twists in between those giant steps, it’s a shame to overlook them as simply “I thought it looked cool” superficiality.

4) Skeuomorphism as merely a passing trend

Design as a professional is generally clogged with trends. Remember 90’s Grunge ala David Carson? Web2.0 or the Glory days of clean Helvetica? Regardless of cultural implications or not, this whole skeuomorphism thing could just be the intermediary between the physical analog existence and this newly digital one we’re currently nurturing. At this stage in the game, I think it’s more important to be aware and mindful of the trends so that as designers/critics/creative people we can use them to our advantage– and then back away slowly when the trend has become too unyielding.

Plain and simple, skeuomorphism in the digital realm makes for fantastic content integration. As a designer who’s incorporated it into my own work, I can tell you it instantly resonates visually with a client who is NOT comfortable with a more abstract take on visual execution. It almost always “makes sense” to the viewer, and that can be hard to refute in a client setting. Recalibrating what that solution will look like is not going to be a comfortable or easy transition, as transitions never are– but trying to understand why this trend/practice/mood is so heavily present is going to be that much more effective than just railing against it.

Doesn’t the tenant “Form follows function” fit in anywhere?

This one makes me feel like I’m repeating ideas straight from the Meggs’ History of Graphic Design tome, but it doesn’t make it any less true! With all of the nostalgic nods to old functions of times past, we ignore that they no longer have any use, and therefore turn graphic design back to the Arts & Crafts movement. Now I love me a good Mucha, and the A&C movement made for some GORGEOUS textiles, but it wasn’t technologically innovative. Visually splendidly gloriously beautiful, absolutely. But Bauhaus it was not. Probably because the A&C movement gave way for the structure and discipline sought after and found through the Modernist movement, and here I am, getting right back into the whole “bell curve of it all” theory. I don’t think skeuomorphic design is any less or more than any other ‘art movement’ or trend found within visual art. It’s just our digital modern society fumbling through our own versions and iterations of those ideas.

Final Thoughts:

It’s taken me a while to write this entire article, as I really wanted to let the opinions, observations, and viewpoints held within other articles marinate, and then come out with some thoughtful responses to that.. marination. What I keep coming back to is how much this feels like a trend within a larger context of trends. I mean hell, it took leggings 5 years to become uncool.. I think we can give skeuomorphism just a bit more time, right?


image sourced from client who wanted a tape on paper look, so I’m guilty of it too. It just works so well guys! 


One thought on “Here’s the thing about skeuomorphism

  1. great points! Phil Meggs was awesome, and amazing, happy to have had him as a professor. I believe the skeuomorphism for design is allowing such a digital age to try and access another sense, whether it be the sense of touch or just the emotive quality given.

    Skeuomorphs are not just for graphic designers, think of rivets in jeans, the dash board in your car… people have been using it for decades. It helps the user to understand quickly how to use or relate to a product. Sometimes it is like most advertising, false (faux leather etc). But it helps the audience to relate and feel connected.

    Michael Stelzner of Social Media Examiner was featured on BlogCastfm in a podcast interview and talked about how he calls his blog an online magazine instead of a blog. It is about understanding and connection. He stated that more people understand what a magazine is as compared to the number of people who understand what a blog is.

    I would love to connect with you more. And hope you got to view the Design Recharge episode on Skeuomorphism this past week.

    email me anytime at

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