Skeuomorphic design, from the Greek words for a tool (skeuos) and shape (morph), means designing a tool in a new medium that incorporates some of the features of its antecedents. These no long perform any necessary function but forge an intuitive link with the past.
On phones and computers skeuomorphism is everywhere, from the fake leather edging of calendars to yellow Post-It notes and clocks with hands. It was needed to ease the transition from physical objects to symbols on screen that represented those objects, but now that we’re all used to clicking on an icon of a dictionary to open a dictionary app, the argument is that we can do away with symbolic props.
The next Apple operating system will do away with them, and as the world copied Apple’s iconic designs, we’re about to see a fundamental change in the way things look online. But does skeuomorphism run deeper than that? Have we been lulled into accepting it in other forms?
While we can easily differentiate art styles, separating out old masters from Saatchi Gallery YA installations, literature is not so clear cut. Lately the detective genre has become especially deceptive. Once crime novels involved a plan of a country house, a body in a library, a roster of six suspects, a smart consulting detective and a dim sidekick.
Now they involve real-life characters who act as detectives (Josephine Tey, Oscar Wilde) or have alternative timelines (Stephen Baxter, Robert Harris) or books in which characters may not have committed crimes at all and are suffering existential crises (The Thief, Snowdrops). The crutch of something known and familiar is being used to ease us into a new form.
Sometimes this is achieved through cover design – Iain Banks’ books existed in two separate strands that allowed us to pick which type of his fictions suited us best. Sometimes an old idea is repacked into a safe new form – Stephanie Meyer’s novels use True Romance symbology to retell the kind of old horror film and SF stories that went out with the pulps.
And there’s a reverse skeuomorphic effect too, wherein dated old ideas are repackaged as something supposedly edgy and fresh – this has been happening for years in the superhero genre. Superman is 70, and now amount of dark toning will convince us that he’s anything more than a stern patrician espousing traditional family values.
So perhaps Apple’s redesign will herald a larger break and encourage us to chuck away the iconography of the past in literature too – many writers would tackle more experimental subject matter if they knew they didn’t have to squeeze it into a more familiar format.