In 1889, H. Colley March noticed that some ancient artifacts had a retro look. They imitated—just for show—elements from older objects. Bronze axes had “thong-work” like flint axes. Pottery bowls had patterns resembling basket weaving. March coined the term skeuomorph(SKYOO-uh-morf), from Greek skéuos (container or tool) and morphḗ (shape), for these design throwbacks. But skeuomorphs aren’t confined to museums. Look around and you’ll find them everywhere.
1. ELECTRIC CANDLES
Whether they’re gleaming in chandeliers or flickering on a restaurant table, electric lights masquerading as candles are skeuomorphs.
2. MUSIC SYNTHESIZERS
Electronic synthesizers can emulate anything from a piccolo to a double bass, or produce electronic peeps, booms, and jangles. They may be no-nonsense boards with sliders and knobs, but they often skeuomorphically take on the look of traditional instruments like guitars or piano keyboards.
3. AUTOMOBILE WHEEL SPOKES
Wagon wheels and bike wheels need spokes. Car wheels don’t, but for some reason they look cool with them.
4. WOODIE CARS
The “woodie” cars of the 1930s and ‘40s skeuomorphically featured wooden passenger compartments echoing the look of horse-drawn carriages. In fact, the components were sometimes crafted by coach-building firms. Later model woodies with fake wood panels were skeuomorphs of skeuomorphs.
5. WOODEN CASH REGISTER
In another twist on wooden skeuomorphs, Lindsay Zuelich handcrafted an “antique” cash register for her booth at the giant crafts market, Crafted at the Port of Los Angeles. The drawers work, but calculations are done on an iPad and a Square Card Reader accepts payments.
6. IMITATION LEATHER
Pleather, Ultrasuede or the “hyde” of the wild Nauga—if it’s fake leather, it’s a real skeuomorph.
7. DELETING FILES
When computer manufacturers decided to move their machines from the clutches of techies into the jittery hands of the general public, they thought skeuomorphic graphical user interfaces would make them comfortingly familiar. That crumpling paper sound is very satisfying.
8. SAVING FILES
It's unlikely you're still using floppy disks to save your documents.
9. SHOPPING CART ICON
What could graphically represent the process of gathering items to purchase online better than the familiar supermarket cart?
10. CLICKS ON CAMERA PHONES
Sounds can be skeuomorphic too. Camera phones don’t have mechanical shutters, but the electronically produced click reassures users that they’ve “snapped” a picture.
11. OLD PHONE RING TONE
Amid the cacophony of chirps, croaks, and pop tunes emanating from cell phones, the sharp brrring! tone out of a 1930s movie is a standout.
12. EVEN THE PHONE ICON ITSELF
13-16. MORE FRIENDLY COMPUTERS
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs loved the red-curtained “photo booths”...
...the contact lists that looked like leather-bound address books, and the simulated yellow legal pads for note taking.
But after his death, the anti-skeuomorphists at Apple won out. With the introduction of iOS7 last year, the wood-grain bookshelf was tossed into the virtual landfill.
17. COMPUTER TOOLS YOU MANIPULATE LIKE PHYSICAL ONES
Don’t play “Taps” for the skeuomorph yet. The Human Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon just announced an iPad app that lets users employ virtual tools with familiar hand movements from the real world. They can enlarge text by gripping and moving a virtual magnifying glass, highlight as if holding a digital felt-tip marker and erase with a real-looking pink eraser.
And besides, without the skeuomorphic envelope, how would you represent an email app?
All images courtesy of Thinkstock unless otherwise noted.