Word Of The Week: ‘Skeuomorphic’



I love this word. It means; when something copies the original functional image of what it’s replicating. So, for example, a Kindle protective cover has cross-stitching that makes it look like a book, or an electric kettle continues to look like one that belongs on a stove even though it doesn’t go near a flame. When video cassettes first came out a lot of them were designed to look like old hardbacks. There’s a comfort factor in this that allows you to adopt something radically new.

Many apps have skeuomorphic features. My father used to paint over beautiful old bare wooded doors, then meticulously stain and wood-grain them in an act of staggering pointlessness.

According to The Guardian, the QWERTY keyboard is a classic example of this, because it’s based on a system designed to slow you down so that the typewriter keys don’t get tangled. Now, once again, there’s a move to replace it – developers at St Andrews University have come up with a much faster alternative – but this time it’s for touch-screen tablets, because you tend to type with your thumbs. Perhaps it could work.

Skeuomorphic design has its advocates and haters. Steve Jobs was its biggest fan, favouring fake textures of leather, wood, paper and glass for his designs, while Tim Cook hated them. With Jobs’ passing it’s being said that the time of skeuomorphism has passed too, and the new Samsung phone seems to prove the case.

19 comments on “Word Of The Week: ‘Skeuomorphic’”

  1. Alison says:

    As a touch typist who can go at almost 100wpm, I was taught that the the keyboard was laid out like this so that the most often used keys were nearer to your ‘stronger’ fingers, which is why the ‘q’ is up from the little finger, the ‘e’ from the middle finger and so on. I would be lost if they changed the layout – if it ain’t broke…

  2. jan says:

    I don’t get why the qwerty keyboard is supposed to be skeumorphic ? The other things you describe don’t lessen or impede the function of the item they are designed to be part of. The other things just make the new invention seem familiar and less strange. I was told a long time ago that when the typewriter was first invented it was invented with a different keyboard but the first sets of typists were so fast and the keys broke so regularly they changed the design to hamper fast typing and therefore slow the users down. With apologies to Alison above (who I am sure is a top typist) most people are right handed and look at where the vowels are a and e the most frequently used letters are mid way through left hand with a on the little finger. Not conducive to speed really. Although iou are on right hand they are none of them on “Home” keys all trained typists will understand home keys ASDF JKL; are where your fingers rest …………..there have been lots of “alternative” keysboards around for the last few years. I worked at a place a few years ago where one lady had one of these new fangled keyboards set up at her computer. In fact I dunno why now the keyboard is not attached to the actually keys or letter ball any more why there aren’t a lot more alternative keysboards floating around. Anyway that’s me done. Some very sloppy thinking being done at the Guardian by the sound of things AAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaghumph (now that’s a key board stretcher)

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    When I was studying at the university, I took a course in torch typing during my third semester and learned and remember a lot of what Alison and Jan are writing about.
    But I was the only boy in the class with twenty or so girls. Sound good? Well, not really.
    The teacher had never had a male student in her class in the later Fifties and was particularly nice to me; I did all the homework, plus bonus assignments, which she constantly praised; “girls seldom do this as they are always rushing out to social events” and the girls disliked me because I was taking a girls’ class and the teacher liked me! Sigh.
    The problem was much of my classwork in high school requiring typed work, if you could, and I was writing stories and articles for the school paper, and fiction for myself, so by the time I reached the university I was a speedy hunt and peck typist. (Remember erasing an error was tough back then and the best erasure was the white correction sheet which left a very white base to a corrected letter or worse number of words; also a possible space available problem there, too.)So the problem was two systems squaring off and little time at night to try and type everything by touch while learning touch.And the papers I had to write in the university came heavy and fast, so I ended up with an “A” in typing, a group of girls gunning for me – as one said “we’d rather go on a date, than do all dumb extras!” and a confused hunt and peck-touch system which still grips me. I should have taken the touch class in the summer, except I was working for food money. And then came computer and laptop key boards and that right area of 17 keys that I seldom use, but occasionally hit with an errant little finger.
    And then the next semester I took Adele Davis’s Speed Reading, where I learned to read with a right finger out and wagging down the center of a book’s page. Well, at least that allow me to read c-r-a-p-o-l-a fast, but use it for nothing else as it takes the joy out of a story and your eyes look like you’re Gene Wilder on Speed.

  4. Henry Ricardo says:

    Dan–“torch typing”? Does this mean that the words burned up as you typed?

  5. glasgow1975 says:

    maybe they did torch typing in the dark? 😛

  6. Mike Cane says:

    >>>I don’t get why the qwerty keyboard is supposed to be skeumorphic ?

    Because it’s mimicking a mechanical keyboard that was designed for the limitations of a mechanical device. There is no law other than that limitation that arranged the keys as QWERTY.

    Chris, I don’t know that Tim Cook ever mentioned he hated skeumorphism. Designer Jon Ive went on record voicing some displeasure with it. He is now in charge of UI design — and the podcast software update that ditched the fake reel-to-reel tape recorder is probably the first sign of his new direction.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    Good call, Henry. And Glasgow1975, like in a cave by torchlight, yes?
    “God lord Professor Challenger. Come look at these two pieces of matching flint held together at the back with bits of Mastodon hide. Go on, open it up, sir. See, it’s a Dawn Age Quarry top. And right next to it, there, I think that must be a shellphone.”
    You two beat out my friend Helen over on the western side of Canada, but I bet she’ll add a word or two.
    Excellent example of touch-hunt and peck typing. And funny, too.
    (Although my quad laptop does run hot after a while and then it messes with my software programs – likes to keep me from editing without having to retype whole bits (it won’t insert; doesn’t save freed-up space gained after a deleted letter or word.

  8. pheeny says:

    I am not quite sure how I feel about skeuomorphism
    On the one hand I like things to be authentic, on the other I quite appreciate the visual wittiness of designs such as the kettle shown above – although that sort of thing has its dangers, I had a similar model that (in a moment of failed early morning multitasking) I did actually put on a lighted gas ring, with unfortunate results (for the kettle anyway) – what I shall be like when I am in my dotage I don’t like to think 🙁

  9. pheeny says:

    Serif fonts that mimic the effect of chiselled stone letters must be one of the earliest examples of skeuomorphism – can anyone think of anything before that?

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Pheeny, my husband did that with a toaster and the smell was absolutely unbelievable. At least you had the excuse of it being a kettle. Sorry Dan, between the two of you you took all my ideas, but I really do like torch typing. I use a combination of touch and hunt and peck, too. I took a night school typing class and was disappointed to find that the machines didn’t have blank key pads so there was nothing to stop us from “looking”.

  11. snowy says:

    Possibly the earliest simple example would be when a civilization moved from building in timber and had just started to build in stone, which would be around the time of bronze or iron tools becoming available.

    Columns that would have originally been fashioned from the trunk of a tree being imitated in stone. And later when stone became expensive, back to wood but painted to resemble marble.

    Though not skeuomorphism, one bygone fashion that amused me then and still does, was hiding TVs in Queen Anne style cabinets. [Having a television in the drawing room was somewhat infra-dig.]

  12. snowy says:

    There are various keyboard layouts available, Dvorak and Single handed Dvorak shift the keys around so that the most frequently used are near the home position. But being language specific they cost more and are not that common.

    Chord keyboards use fewer keys by requiring multiple keys to be pressed for each letter.

    The problem with a tablet device is it needs all of a users fingers to hold it leaving only the thumbs to type with. This might be ok for light use, but long term use would be tiring and might lead to health problems.

    (If anybody with a touch screen device wants to have a play with an alternative keyboard. The GKOS Keyboard app is free on Android [and probably free for iPad/iPhone].

    It takes about an hour to learn, so not for the easily bored. But if you need to enter text while standing up with nowhere to rest the tablet, it is quite useful.)

  13. jan says:

    Yep I get that bit Mike I know i’m a bit thick but I’ve might have that bit sussed……….. wot I am trying to say (but not very clearly obviously) is that I don’t think skeumorphism necessarily limits the effectiveness of the device that’s the mimic. It seems only to do it in the case of the QWERTY board (and the reasons for that are more complicated ) – if that’s any clearer. Why does the binding of the Kindle make the device any less effective for example? And to return to my original theme that of the typewriter keyboard. Back in the early nineties I worked at a charity where one of the ladies who used to type up a lot of information to go on teletext had one of these alternative keyboard thingamajigs and it was for her very effective. In fact (gonna start droning here) right from the 1920s and ’30s and later with the introduction of the golfball typewriters not with a series of keys but with all the necessary letters imprinted onto a golfball metal sphere which lessened the amount of damage that could be caused to a typeface and later with electric typewriters manufacturers have attempted to introduce a better easier to learn and better design of keyboard. The thing that’s stopped them is all folk who have mastered the keyboard and can work sometimes at speeds of 135 words a minute and above have vehemently protested that they don’t want to relearn another keyboard once the original has probably become part of their muscle memory. I only plod along but can look out of the window talk on the phone and keep copy typing at a few words a minute but the real masters of the art are just so accurate and speedy its amazing. So although I can honestly assure u that I’ve come to grips with the idea of the alternative keyboard and QWERTY not being the only option the reasons for its survival are rather more complex than they would first seem.

  14. pheeny says:

    Snowy:”The problem with a tablet device is it needs all of a users fingers to hold it leaving only the thumbs to type with.”

    Actually I read t’other day that teenagers are increasingly using their thumbs to gesture with instead of their forefingers – maybe in a couple of hundred years time we will all be pointing things out with huge thumbs and all the other fingers will have atrophied …

  15. Dan Terrell says:

    In some cultures people already and for a long time point daily with their thumbs and not a finger, as this would be rude. In parts of Indonesia, they do this. Don’t point their shoes at you either and bottom of shoes pointing is very bad. I have not noticed any of their fingers disappearing, other than workers in jute mills, log processors, etc.

  16. snowy says:

    I suspect the tendency to gesture with the thumb is merely an energy conservation strategy, it saves the effort of lifting all the other knuckles off the floor.

    And I think male teenagers devote endless hours in selfless solitary devotion, to ensure that the fingers on at least one hand are fully exercised, to prevent such a catastrophic scenario.

  17. Dan Terrell says:

    Last time today, there were/are probably still are elderly women in Bali who would attend a village trace dance, dance alone to the gongs and gamelans. and when in trace would fall back, unhurt, and then later suddenly sit up and hold up their right thumb before their faces. They were now ready to tell the future, tell who was a thief, a cheat, who would fall ill or gain wealth or a good marriage all by the reading of that thumb’s dark nail.
    This was very traditional both mystical and magical. Few people dared ask unless there was an urgent need, because the telling was usually right and sometimes could be used in court. Most of these women did not expect any payment. It was a channeling to the “truth” and their gift to the village or town.
    Out in the dark forest, away from town, with all the trance dancers and the percussive music and incense smoke, fruit bats, flambeaus, and dancers dressed as protective monsters, it was most impressive. My young son loved it.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    It’s trance up there in the first sentence, too. There, I put it in for you, Dan. If you focus on something as small as your thumb everything else falls out of focus so I wonder if that was part of the process of staying outside the here and now while still being able to speak.

  19. Steve says:

    In High School I too was the only male in a touch typing class. I’ve often said and meant that it’s the only thing I ever learned in school that has done me a bit of good. We learned on both manuals and electrics – this was in the mid-60’s. My speed soon had the keys getting stuck despite the design.

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