Ever wonder why maple syrup bottles often have that tiny, useless handle?
Ever wonder why station wagons from the 1960s through the 1980s had that awful fake wood paneling?
Both are examples of skeuomorphs, design features once practical elements of an object’s design that have been retained, even after the original element has disappeared. Maple syrup used to come in large earthenware jugs, and the handle was helpful in carrying it. Cars – especially trucks and station wagons – were once made with real wood paneling before car makers switched to more expensive steel.
The thing is, once you know about skeuomorphs, you’ll see them everywhere. There must be millions of plastic objects made to look like wood. Spokes are a necessary design feature for wagons or bicycles, but not cars. Yet it’s still at least somewhat common to see spokes on car wheels. Even the giant concrete pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge are skeuomorphs: the bridge is actually supported by abutments at the base of the pylons. The pylons were added to make the bridge look prettier, and to assure the public of its structural integrity.
There are thousands of computer programs and smartphone apps that look like their physical equivalents – especially note-taking and calendar apps – even though there really isn’t a need for an app to look like a legal pad or a paper calendar. Steve Jobs was a huge fan of skeuomorphism: when he was alive, Apple software was chock-full of interfaces that looked like address books, notepads and bookshelves. Skeuomorphs need not even be physical objects: most phones make a clicking sound when taking a picture, even though they don’t have mechanical shutters!
Something especially interesting about skeuomorphs is that they are by no means a modern thing. Skeuomorphs go back thousands of years. Many design features of classic Greek temples – guttae, modillions, triglyphs and mutules – originated in construction of wooden temples. When the Greeks switched to stone construction, such things were no longer structurally necessary but they liked the look, so kept the design. Wealthy Minoans had elaborate metal cups, which potters made painstaking copies of for everyday folk, even down to little “nubs” of clay to mimic the rivets used in the metal cups. A little closer to our time, Fredrick the Great, ruler of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, hated that his soldiers wiped their noses on their uniform sleeves. He decreed that a row of buttons be sewn on the sleeves to prevent the men from wiping their noses on his uniforms. Three hundred years later, the buttons might have moved to the other side of the sleeve… but they’re still there.
So think about skeuomorphs the next time you click the floppy disk icon to save a file to your SSD, or tap an icon with a 1930s-era microphone to record a memo on your smartphone!