In the 27th century BC the architect Imhotep planned and built what was possibly the first pyramid in ancient Egypt. Most texts on the subject describe the intellectual jump that Imhotep made when he converted a traditional mastaba tomb into a stepped pyramid, but there’s a curious quirk in the construction that belies the Egyptians’ naïvety in building such a large structure with stone for the first time: skeuomorphism.
dictionary.com defines skeuomorphism as “an ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques”.
The ancient Egyptians may have been skilled in working with logs but faced with large chunks of characterless stone they felt they had to do something with it, so they carved the stone to look like the materials they’d used before: logs for the stone to be used in ceilings, bundles of reeds for the stone ‘doors’ (which were largely fake, or ceremonial), and palm stems for the columns. Even the stone for the walls was often dressed to look like the mud-bricks traditionally used for their mastaba tombs.
The photograph on the left shows how stone was carved to look like wooden beams in the entrace hall to King Zoser’s pyramid. The photograph on the right shows columns carved in imitation of palm stems.
This same effect proliferates in computing: the icons we use – think recycle bin – the envelope symbol used to denote an email, or the ‘hand tool’ used to scroll inside PDF files. Even the term ‘desktop’ now implies a more abstract space.
Apple took this even further, for example by surrounding iCal, the calendar application, with what looked like leather binding, even with stitching along the edges. Or take their podcast app in iOS which displays a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
I recognise this, so what’s the problem?
Skeuomorphism is employed as a means of acclimatising us to something new, and in some cases is essential. So why are critics are applauding Apple’s move away from skeuomorphism? To put it simply, skeuomorphism is outdated: it has few benefits, wastes space and can be confusing, especially once a new mode takes over (think about horsepower). Clive Thompson writing for Wired goes further by claiming that by holding onto “these defunct models, we will fail to produce digital tools that harness what computers do best”.
In recent years Microsoft has been collecting the design plaudits for its Modern UI (sometimes referred to as Metro). The philosophy behind this was content over layout, function over form, typography over decoration. Microsoft claims that this approach is authentically digital. For those readers in Switzerland, SBB’s simple but effective signage is another excellent example of this concept.
Design has come a long, long way since Imhotep persuaded King Zoser 4500 years ago that stone would last longer than wood. But our requirements and basic need for familiarity remain the same. Do we need to let go of outmoded gestures, symbols or terms and to seek something more relevant and progressive? Or is there always room for decoration?
Bild: Ancient Egypt