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Skeuomorphism

June 2, 2013

Anyone following the rumour mill around the Apple announcements on the 10th of June will know that one of the strong possibilities is that the bookshelf and games centre visual metaphors will go, along with the faux stitching on Contacts.  It would appear that Ives is now running design on software as well as hardware and considers the approach outmoded.   Skeuomorphic design means replicating features from an older approach on a modern artefact.  

It reminded me of a point I made three decades ago in the context of a discussion about accounting software.  I wondered why in a computer age we were persisting with double entry book keeping. a method designed to reduce manual error which was no longer necessary.   I lost that argument by the way.  two decades ago I argued that the emergent virtual communities needed a very different design and should not replicate a physical environment.  That was at BT Labs where they had primitive avatars walking in and out of meeting rooms.  A decade later (there is a pattern here) I was arguing against the long term validity of things like second life outside of a game environment.   This last year (the pattern continues) I have been arguing something similar in relation to the difference between the real world and computer games.

Of those various debates the one I remember best was the virtual meeting space.   At that time I was also working with Tracy, Wendy and others at the Hawthorne Labs in IBM.   They had designed a collaborative meeting space which was entirely based on symbols and did not mimic the real world.   If it had been released with some serious investment I think it would have transformed the recently acquired Lotus Software which was struggling with team rooms.  A mixture of conservatism within the commercial side and a reluctance to move things from research as long as research was funded were factors here.

The point is that a virtual environment is not the same thing as a physical environment.   If you try and give the same clues you confuse people, especially as in the real world we rely on more than visual or oral communication.  A leather bound notebook feels and smells like a leather bound notebook while a computer image does not.  It also baroque in nature, while it may be pretty it lacks the beauty and elegance of minimalism.   We need to understand that something is different to use it differently, skewomorphic design prevents that or at least holds it back.

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