SKEUOMORPH

When I referred to the trash or recycle bin on our desktops in a Strictly Speaking last month (18/9), I didn’t know that this is what’s known as a skeuomorph (from the Greek skeuos “vessel, implement” + morphe “form”). The term was coined in the late 19th century to describe architectural or craft features transferred from one medium where they serve a functional purpose, to another where they don’t – such as Celtic interlacing patterns on stonework that are based on weaving techniques. Beyond the purely decorative, skeuomorphs have a purpose in mediating new technologies by association with the familiar. The pylons on the Sydney Harbour Bridge provide no support, but give a reassuring sense of solidity; the page-turn feature on e-books gives the impression of reading a “real” book. However, in some cases they can appear redundant or even mystifyingly anachronistic, as in a recent podcast app which displays a reel-to-reel tape playing while the podcast is running – no longer a familiar object for much of the intended audience. Once we start looking for skeuomorphs they’re everywhere: rivets on jeans, flame-shaped light globes, the click of a “shutter” on a digital camera – though perhaps this last one should be a skeuophone.
Written by Adam Smith, senior research assistant at the Centre for Language Sciences, Macquarie University.

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