Tag Archives: functionalism

Skeuomorphism 1: Anachronism

First: I’ll just confess right now that this didn’t end up going where I thought it was going to. Nothing about “type” here.

Second: a story.

Once upon a time, there was a device named A.

A performed function X.

Because of the way A did X, it had a set of visual characteristics, B.

One day, a new device showed up named C.

C also performed function X.

Although the way that C did didn’t require it to have visual characteristics B, it had them anyway.

This story highlights the fact that “skeuomorphism” is a status conferred by participation in a specific historical narrative. The critique of skeuomorphism responds to the consistency of these historical relationships: it’s not that visual characteristics B are inherently bad; it’s that keeping them around in device C is inappropriate and inauthentic. The skeuomorph is necessarily an anachronism; the anti-skeuomorphism camp gives this fact a normative addition, judging that anachronism is bad design.

There’s a story in architecture with the same structure: it’s the classic tale of how a once great style with a political and/or social agenda became an empty aesthetic. (The canonical example is the shift from early modern architecture to the International style.) At some point the style’s techniques (expansively defined) were legitimately connected to a social and/or political agenda; eventually, however, we find architecture which seems to consist only of the superficial reiteration of those same techniques, devoid of ideological effect. These critiques share in common the idea that the legitimacy of a technique is historically contingent.

What about the other side in this skeuomorphism debate? To return to the variable-filled narrative from earlier, those in favor of skeuomorphism argue that visual characteristics help us understand that C does the same thing did. They, too, implicitly recognize the historical contingency of technique: as a simulacrum, the skeuomorph doesn’t retain the function of the original design element it references. In fact, a skeuomorph always makes the same performance: it reestablishes visual continuity between devices whose functional basis has become discontinuous.

The long-term (and wholly unsurprising) consequence of repeating a technique for the sake of establishing familiarity is that we forget the origin of these echoes. The skeuomorph disconnects from its historical (potentially functional or ideological) referent and becomes part of a homogeneous field of equally untethered brother skeuomorphs.

Since I’m starting to sound intellectually unfashionable, I should clarify something: the problem with skeuomorphs is not their lack of meaning or historical reference (pff!), but the tendency of this paradigm to equate “usability” with “familiarity.” Historical “familiarity” becomes ahistorical “consistency” becomes stylistic ossification. Applied to the architectural narrative, the problem isn’t that endless repetition of the International Style disconnected it from the ideologies underlying modern architecture, but that endless replication of the aesthetic tends to work against more complex engagements with new contexts.