Skeuomorphism and the power of metaphor

There was a fascinating article published last week on the Cult of Mac website last week which, if you look away from the sensationalist headlines gave an interesting viewpoint on some of the challenges of the use of skeuomorphic design  within MacOS (and comparing that to the “authentically digital” design patterns within Windows 8).

A skeuomorph is “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original” according to Wikipedia. Mike Elgan, the article’s author, argues that use of things like wood or leather textures in Apps to make them look a little like their real-world counterparts is cheesy, and that it also jars with the Apple hardware design which follows in the modernist tradition of clean lines and stark materials (metals, plastics and so on).

Whilst taste is something that is very much in the eye of the beholder (and not something that I’m going to start shouting off views about), it has got me thinking about where the boundaries of skeuomorphism hit metaphor – which has been a design staple for the world of computing for at least as long as graphical user interfaces have been around if not for longer.

We have desktops, folders, files; we copy, cut and paste. Our business applications ape ledger books, typewriters and overhead projectors still to this day. But all of that is just metaphor…

My favourite bit of software, still, after eight or so years, without a doubt is the music app Reason. The reason I love it, and in comparison with other programs like Abletron, is because I found it really easy to pick up because it is a reconstruction of the world of physical electronic music, with cables and patch panels and knobs and sliders and everything else. Is this simulation? Is this metaphor? Is this skeuomorphism? Who knows…

Would Reason work in the world of the authentically digital Metro UI? I’m not sure – but I’m certain that Reason isn’t authentically digital. That doesn’t make it a bad app, but it probably does make it a matter of usability more than taste. Does, as Elgan describes, making a Podcast player look like a reel-to-reel tape recorder make it a bad app? Well, if the skeuomorph being used isn’t recognisable to the end users, then maybe (and the new generation of app consumers don’t know what a CD is, let alone a reel-to-reel deck!)…

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