In a November 2014 episode, Vsauce host Michael Stevens explores the idea of misnomers, or misleading names.


"Misnomers" | Published on Nov 11, 2014

It’s a fascinating topic. Not just because misnomers themselves are fun and curious things - who would’ve thought that wheat grains are, technically speaking, fruits!? - but because these idiosyncrasies in the English language reveal patterns in human behaviour and how our vocabulary has multiplied over the centuries.

Roughly three quarters through the video (7:50/11:25) Michael refers to skeuomorphism, a design concept that uses ornamental design elements to resemble real-world counterparts. In the context of technology, this is typically used in the design of software and digital products so that they resemble the physical object they are replacing. Unless you’ve shunned technology for the last ten years, you’ll quicky realise that you encounter digital skeuomorphic design everywhere. For example, you might glance down and discover that on your smartphone the icon for ‘phone call’ is an old phone, the icon for ‘email’ is an old envelope, and, if you take a picture with your phone’s camera unsilenced, you'll hear the sound of a mechanical shutter, even though your phone doesn’t have one.

Skeuomorphic design elements may seem as idiosyncratic as misnomers, but there is a key difference between the two. Whereas misnomers can almost be regarded as accidents, skeuomorphic design is used deliberately and has a specific and vital function.

Instant Familiarity

Why did digital skeuomorphic design become so popular in the first place? Tony Thomas, writing at Medialoot, states that incorporating real-world design makes “interfaces feel instantly familiar.” This sense of familiarity is crucial as it encourages faster adoption for new users by making the product feel less unknown and intimidating.

The Rise and Demise of Digital Skeuomorphism

Digital skeuomorphism dates back to the early 1980s. Apple’s first consumer GUI, launched in 1984, brought in the notion of a ‘desktop’ and icons that resembled folders and pieces of paper.

At the time when computer interfaces were completely alien to most users, digital skeuomorphic design played a critical role in enabling users to learn new technology intuitively. The clever use of visual metaphors connected old, familiar objects with new, confusing technology to make the user interface more intuitive and in many ways catalysed the widespread adoption of personal computers.

With the launch of the iOS 7 in September 2013, Apple decided to ditch the iconic skeuomorphic elements that have been on the iPhone since 2007. Following the departure of iOS Software Chief, Scott Forstall back in October, Sir Jony Ive and Apple’s new SVP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi, quickly took the opportunity to strip iOS of all its shadows and physical references:

“When we sat down last November (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits,” says Ive. “So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got design out of the way.”

Technology writers for the Forbes and The Guardian, as well as a wealth of technology bloggers, rejoiced at Apple’s decision and even went so far as to say that “skeuomorphism is dead”. Why? Well, the skeuomorphic style does have some drawbacks. It can sometimes hinder usability; result in poor use of space; and the design elements need to be updated regularly to prevent them from looking ‘dated’. Finally, skeuomorphic design could be seen as opposing innovation, as the design elements refer to the past instead of reflecting the future. Even Michael Stevens in Vsauce states that skeuomorphs are design elements that today are “merely ornamental, even though in the past originally they had a purpose”. And with no purpose or useful function, why would this design trend stick around? 

Ironically, Jony Ive's statement suggests that his attitude towards digital skeuomorphism doesn't align with those who think digital skeuomorphism deserves the title of "most hated design trend". The decision to move from a digital skeuomorphic design to a flat design is primarily based on user experience. Now that the iPhone and other Apple products have been used by millions worldwide, for many years, their priority is no longer to make apple products easily understood by those who have never used Apple before. And because children are becoming familar with digital interfaces from a younger and younger age, there's a diminishing need to reference the real world in digital technology as a instructional aid for onboarders. 

But digital skeuomorphism isn’t dead. And that’s a great thing. 

Some people, such as  John Browlee in his article for Forbes, claim that digital skeuomorphism has already made a big come back with the Apple Watch. While I don’t agree completely with his argument, I do expect that most new products that come to market will utilise digital skeuomorphic design. It remains an important and unrivalled tool for any tech startup that wants to introduce new interfaces and technologies to the mass market. 

We still need skeuomorphic design because most technology organisations still want to achieve rapid and easy adoption of new digital products for users that are both tech savvy or relatively new adopters. In this sense, these retro design elements are markers of true technological progress. Instead of functioning the small, elite group of the highly technical they drive the global, mass market adoption of new technology. And for this reason, I hope digital skeuomorphic design never dies out. 

A guest post from Izzy Griffin-Smith

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