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a skeuomorphic design includes features which make a new thing look older or more familiar


noun [countable]

something new that includes design features which are intended to make it look older or more familiar

'Reminders features a skeuomorphic interface that represents a lined notepad.'

AppAdvice 8th August 2012

'Apple's most recent skeuomorph is one of the worst. The company's Podcasts app, … actually shows a reel-to-reel tape playing while the podcast is running. Do people under the age of 30 even know what a reel-to-reel tape player is?'

Cult of Mac 21st July 2012

Are you the sort of person that moves with the times, getting a buzz out of change and innovation, or do you feel more comfortable with what's been around for many years and is therefore reassuringly familiar? In an attempt to somehow meet the middle ground between these two attitudes, many software specialists are currently focusing on an approach to design which has brought the obscure term skeuomorphic out of the woodwork.

skeuomorphic designs are rapidly becoming a hot topic in software development, especially on platforms like tablets and smartphones

A skeuomorphic design is a new development of an earlier concept which is embellished by some of the characteristic, recognizable features of the original. These features serve no functional purpose, but are there simply to add the idea of familiarity, making the item resemble earlier forms of the same object or idea. Examples from the real world include brass rivets on blue jeans, flame-shaped light bulbs, and computer printed postage with a circular town label and cancellation lines.

Skeuomorphic designs are rapidly becoming a hot topic in software development, especially on platforms like tablets and smartphones. In an attempt to make applications look or behave like their real world counterparts, some developers have gone out of their way to add adornments such as knobs, buttons, textures, lines, holes … just about anything is possible with the graphic capability of current devices. These 'decorations' are there to give new bits of tech an air of comfortable familiarity, so we think 'Ah, right, that looks like something I've seen before …' An obvious example is on some digital readers, which have 'pages' which can be 'turned' in an attempt to emulate a real book. But there are many other similar ideas, such as lines on notepad pages, analogue representations of clocks, calculators with buttons and mock LED/LCD displays, knobs and dials on digital synthesisers and audio devices, or digital book libraries sitting on 'wood-grained' shelves. The iPad's Calendar app, for example, includes stitching and remnants of torn pages, suggesting that previous months have been 'ripped' from a physical calendar. Video and sound can be involved too, a familiar example being the depiction of a shutter movement and click on a smartphone camera.

The derived term skeuomorphism is sometimes used to refer to this approach to design, and predictably there are opposing perspectives on how beneficial it is in the development of software. Advantages include its appeal - skeuomorphic interfaces are often visually rich and engaging for users - and the feeling of instant familiarity it gives, which makes some applications easier to use. Such designs also demonstrate attention to detail. Disadvantages of skeuomorphic interfaces include their poor use of space by including superfluous graphics; inefficiency, e.g. three or four finger movements for an action that could have been implemented by a single tap; and the potential to look dated - the more out of the ordinary a design is, the quicker it starts to seem old and strange, especially for users who have no experience of the original device being emulated.

Background – skeuomorphic

The terms skeuomorphic and skeuomorph date back to the late 19th century, based on Greek skeuos, meaning 'container' or 'tool', and morphe meaning 'shape' or 'form'.

One of the earliest examples of a skeuomorphic approach to software design was IBM's Real Things. Launched in 1998, this methodology presented ideas such as RealPhone, RealCD and RealBook, each one a computer interface designed to look like a real-world counterpart.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 8th October 2012.

Open Dictionary


a form of location that involves the underwater detonation of a bomb which causes sound waves that are picked up by ships

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