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Skeuomorph (wikipedia.org)
66 points by mikecane on June 25, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 47 comments

If I remember correctly, Ayn Rand detested Skeuomorph's very strongly. Howard Roark (of the Foundainhead) criticizes them on the grounds that they hold back creativity.

I can't say I disagree, though I do kind of like the little handle on maple syrup jars.

The Latin Alphabet is riddled with nonfunctional historical flourishes, but that doesn't seem to hold back typography; sometimes constraints can be lenses for creativity, instead of shackles.

> sometimes constraints can be lenses for creativity, instead of shackles.

This seems to be the case in just about every field. People who aren't very familiar with classical music hear about musical forms and highly restrictive techniques like fugue and think "Oh, classical music must be so stuffy and formulaic" or a common geek response I've heard: "Wow, Bach's music is made up of algorithms!" (cringe).

But in reality those restrictions are where creativity is born, why composers are still writing fugues. Remove all restrictions from the process of composition (including self-imposed restrictions) and you have noise!

Another example I wanted to share: in the documentary "The Five Obstructions" (an epic film about the creative process) Lars von Trier tasks the Jørgen Leth to re-create his short film "The Perfect Human" in five different ways, with five different sets of rules and restrictions.

The one that Leth is most thrown off by at first is the task to re-make the film without any instructions from Lars. It's an awesome movie.

Remove all restrictions from the process of composition (including self-imposed restrictions) and you have noise!

Another downside would be decision paralysis. Arbitrary restrictions allow you to narrow the scope. This was the first piece of advice in a book on how to compose I recall browsing through.

"Nonfunctional" is relative when the main goal is recognizability/differentiation of individual letter forms. Serifs make the difference between, say, 1 and l much more apparent.

I'm not talking about serifs vs. san-serifs; more like, whether the terminals are lachrymal or calligraphic. Calligraphic detail in typefaces, by the way, almost a perfect example of a skeoumorph.

Innovation in typography? I'm by no means an expert in the field, but that seems like a poor example. I've always imagined typography to be relatively stagnant.

Search for [best typefaces 2009], or 2008, or 2007...

Or look at the careers of famous typographers, like Spiekermann or Tobias Frere-Jones or...

It may be "stagnant" as in "nobody's invented a new letter like doublequeue", but there's plenty of innovation within the established forms. Look at HFJ Archer, a slab serif, bound by conventions established almost two centuries ago for 19th-century poster printing, that is something fresh and new in 2007.

stagnant like a glacier.

Can you give an example?

Take almost any established style of typeface. There's a reason it looks like that. Didot-style fonts are the result of innovation in composition and in equipment, which implies that more classical serif typeface forms (which obviously continue to be produced) are flourishes meant to evoke previously-functional aspects of the typeface.

Compare Didot to Garamond.

Same thing happens with Sans Serif fonts. You might argue that all sans-serif italics are just flourishes, since sans faces can be obliqued instead of designing cursive-style slanted type.

Compare Gill Sans Italic to Akzidenz.

> Compare Didot to Garamond.

What am I supposed to see? I'm afraid I'm having trouble seeing the conclusion you're getting at.

From the samples on Wikipedia, the most apparent difference is that parts of the capital "A", like the feet and the left leg, are thinner and look more "deliberate". Other than that, the two fonts look very similar.

Pull up:

* http://new.myfonts.com/fonts/linotype/didot/

* http://new.myfonts.com/fonts/adobe/garamond/

Look at the dramatically contrasting weights between vertical and horizontal strokes in Didot. They bear deliberately little resemblance to how a human calligrapher would produce letters.

Notice that the stroke axis in Garamond isn't 90 degrees; the "pen" that produced it isn't a a machine working an orthogonal path. There are far more calligraphic serifs than Garamond, you can see it. Look at the lowercase 'e'.

Look at how Garamond's strokes flow into the serifs, and how abrupt Didot's are. Check out the lowercase 'p' on Didot. 90 degrees.

Look at the terminals; Didot's are either sharp enough to cut glass, or mechanically precise teardrops. Again, Garamond strokes end the way a calligraphy stroke would.

Serifs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serif#Origins_and_etymology "The explanation proposed by Father Edward Catich in his 1968 book The Origin of the Serif is now broadly but not universally accepted: the Roman letter outlines were first painted onto stone, and the stone carvers followed the brush marks which flared at stroke ends and corners, creating serifs."

Ayn was echoing the modernist critique of architecture - she probably agreed with it but it would be in Roark's character to argue the point. Modernism is/was at least in part about using materials honestly, letting the structure reflect the construction and not just continuing a deception by putting a non-structural greek facade on everything.

For a good peek into the modernist mindset, I recommend Towards a New Architecture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toward_an_Architecture) by Le Corbusier.

As a contrast, I recommend the post-modernist view in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by Robert Venturi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Venturi).

These days I have NO IDEA where architecture is now that we are post-post-post-modern.

It's not that Ayn Rand detested skeuomorphs. It's that she wanted to demonstrate Howard Roark's independence and honesty. AFAIK Ayn Rand did not have a position on architecture; she just used it as a device in (one of) her novels.

Unfortunately, many people read Ayn Rand way too literally.

You may be right, but I'm unconvinced.

Roark lumps classicalism/skeuomorphs in with design by committee and the collectivist modernism [1] as forms of collectivism: design not based on your vision, but based on the vision of others. That's just objectivism applied to architecture. Why do you feel I shouldn't take this as her literal opinion?

[1] Later in the book, the mainstream architects embrace a collectivist version of modernism.

Ayn Rand used certain architectural ideas to illustrate second-handedness, but she could have just as easily used other architectural ideas to illustrate second-handedness.

That said, it wasn't classical architecture OR modernism that Roark had a problem with, IIRC. It was the production of mongerel, impure architecture where everyone threw in something they copied from somewhere, without using their independent judgement and without considering the overall theme/meaning of the building.

BTW, there is no application of Objectivism to architure (at least not directly), and there is no "Objectivist architecture." Just like there is no "Existential architecure" and no "Marxist architecture". (Though there was architecture in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany inspired by statism, and there could be architecture inspired by Objectivism, that doesn't mean Marxism or Objectivism have an official, philosophical position on architecture.)

BTW, there is no application of Objectivism to architure (at least not directly), and there is no "Objectivist architecture." Just like there is no "Existential architecure" and no "Marxist architecture".

I do not think this is true. Artistic and aesthetic judgments, in Objectivism, have philosophical meaning. Rand applied Objectivism to her novels in the same way Rand's characters would (explicitly or implicitly) apply Objectivism to their music or architecture or work.

To give an example (one Rand herself would likely be displeased with, but she is more than capable of being wrong about the consequences of her own philosophy), prog rock has a better philosophical foundation than punk rock. While punk rock is nihilistic and denies talent and beauty, prog rock exaults human talent. Punk rock is predicated on the idea that any idiot can thrash on a poorly-tuned guitar and make "music", and hence worships mediocrity; prog rock is predicated on taking rock seriously as a means of artistic expression and in pushing both form and effect to all conceivable limits, using the fullest of the musician's ability and creativity to do so. (If this reasoning is unconvincing to you, you're probably not much of an Objectivist. Or a prog rock snob, for that matter.)

>>>Punk rock is predicated on the idea that any idiot can thrash on a poorly-tuned guitar and make "music",

And just like that you throw away The Ramones?

Everything you said is exactly right, but there still isn't "Objectivist music" or "Objectivist architecture." Certain architectural schools or certain musical styles may be basically incompatible with Objectivism, but that doesn't mean some specific musical or architectural element (drums, for lack of a better example, or skeuomorphs) are.

Hence, my "(at least not directly)".

I don't know if it qualifies, but it should! PageCurl in Apple's iBooks. And those "wooden" shelves.

http://www.useit.com/papers/anti-mac.html is a 1996 paper by Jakob Nielsen & Don Gentner that criticizes too-literal visual metaphors in the Macintosh user interface. Good read.

"The designers of the Phelps farm tractor in 1901 based their interface on a metaphor with the interface for the familiar horse: farmers used reins to control the tractor. The tractor was steered by pulling on the appropriate rein, both reins were loosened to go forward and pulled back to stop, and pulling back harder on the reins caused the tractor to back up"

The change in interfaces, particularly metaphors, is really interesting as things go from derivatives (e.g. a mechanised horse) to originals (e.g. a tractor).

It's also interesting when metaphors don't change, failing to keep up with reality, e.g. the floppy disk being used a save metaphor, when floppy disks have not been prevalent for years.

Tanks are still driven this way. Never thought of it as reins.

Apple's UI is littered with stuff like this, and it's been the cause of some famous criticisms; there's a good one tearing down the old overly-literal Quicktime interface, for example.

The Apple User Interface Guidelines for the iPad specifically encourages this sort of thing, which I found interesting. The phonebook app is a prime example.

I wonder how much material/effort is wasted in our civilization on the entirely non-functional ones that continue to be used, like tiny little cargo cults to the past, each adding a little friction within the engine of modern life, progress, and bettering our world.

Yes, but … some of these can be seen as removing the cognitive friction of relearning unimportant things every time their implementations evolve. Rigorous situational efficiency would be inefficient overall, because everyone would lose time to codeswitching.

Good point, but that can also be seen as simply moving some things that might be naïvely thought of as "non-functional" into a class of "not obviously so, but yes, functional". The same as with skeuomorphs that are used as social signals. So even being liberal in letting things into that class, there is very likely a residue of entirely non-functional skeuomorphs remaining, right? And, I wonder how much we collectively waste on it.

Perhaps more interesting, I wonder how that value changes over time in cultures. Is it ever a significant drag on older cultures after a while? Does it have secondary effects. Like if you are surrounded by skeuomorphs all the time, does it hamper some learning because the designs of most things aren't really making sense.

This is tricky for me to think about because I’m not sure what to count as “functional”. For example, is a cozy sense of familiarity and well-being functional? I could argue either side of that.

It seems obvious to me that these things are a drag on culture. But because it seems obvious, I wonder how much I’m missing – maybe I’m just taking too narrow a view of what’s a drag v. what looks like a drag but is actually adaptive.

Indeed on the tricky bit.

But even so, some dynamics might be discernible in the mess. Such as... consider the set of skeuomorphs defended by the claim to function that they aid by minimizing some switching cost. That defense has something akin to a half-life, when there exists some set of transition steps that takes the design of the skeuomorph, imperceptibly at each step, toward some more efficient design. So indefinitely using the "minimizing switching costs" rationale as giving "function" wouldn't hold up in such cases. Then it seems reasonable to say that any costs which arise from not having moved such skeuomorphs along that path of imperceptible transitions in a timely fashion would be a indefensible waste if that was the skeuomorph's only claim to functionality.

I think the word you are looking for is "culture" :)

Also known as kitsch. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitsch

Not quite the same. They're overlapping sets.

Yeah, kitsch especially is quite fuzzy, but the way I understand it most of this "form imitating function" falls under it.

It turns out this blog post is about skeuomorphs in the Apple UI: http://speedbird.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/what-apple-needs-t...

Right now, number 40 under New. Should be voted up, I think.

So that's what those tiny pockets are for, pocket watches.

I'm not sure I believe that. Pocket watches were worn with waistcoats. I am not sure when the average man stopped wearing a waistcoat, but wristwatches were "mass-market" during and after WW2 (massive economies of scale necessary to equip armies with them), probably around the same time. When was the period of history, pre-wristwatch, when men who could afford watches didn't wear waistcoats?

That's what I use them for. I carry a pocket watch, and wear Levis 501 jeans almost exclucively.

I've always referred to it (and used it) as a change pocket, as have jean manufacturers.

How on earth do you get coins out of that tiny pocket?


(Or fingers.)

That hubcap has a non-functional knockoff (aka spinner), too.

I suppose now the cat's out of the bag.

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