- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a design feature based on or enduring from an earlier design which has become obsolete
When was the last time you used a floppy disk? Hell, some of you might be young enough to have never used a floppy disk. But in a hangover from the early days of computers, when you save a document you usually click an icon with a floppy disk pictured on it. This is a skeuomorph—a design feature based on or integrating elements of an earlier design that is now outdated.
Not that all skeuomorphs need be as intangible as icons on a screen, of course. Some are very much solid objects—like electric lightbulbs made to look like flickering candles, e-reader covers made to look like leather-bound books, and push-button telephones made to look like rotary dials. Others, however, are even more subtle—like the shutter-click sound made by a smartphone camera, or the right-to-left swipe you use to turn pages on tablets.
Etymologically, the word skeuomorph (pronounced “skyoo-oh-morph”) pulls together two Greek roots: skeuos, essentially meaning a tool or implement, and morphe, meaning shape. In the sense we’ve outlined here, it’s been in use in our language since the mid 1930s, but the word itself is somewhat older.
According to evidence collected by the Oxford English Dictionary, skeuomorph was first used in 1889, as the opposite of two other equally obscure words, zoomorph and phyllomorph. They were used respectively to describe artefacts made from animal products (like bone) or plant products (like wood) that retained features evident of their material. The knots and grains of the surface of a wooden table, for instance, would be phyllomorphs.
A similar term was needed alongside these to refer to artefacts showing elements of their structure, or how they were made or shaped, and skeuomorph was it. Originally, skeuomorphs were design features that demonstrated the origin or manufacture of an object—or, as the original describe put it, “forms of ornament demonstrably due to structure.”
This meaning remains in use in some contexts today—principally in architecture, where the likes of supporting struts, pillars, brackets, frameworks and other foundations are often visibly incorporated into designs rather than hidden or disguised.