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There’s a Name for That: Skeuomorph

Why your iPhone makes a shutter sound every time you snap a new selfie even though it doesn’t have any of the mechanical parts common to old cameras.

By Peter C. Baker


(Illustration: Ben Wiseman)

I wrote this column in a word-processing program I opened by clicking an icon of an old-fashioned inkwell, a piece of technology I’ve never used. When I’m done with the file, I’ll drag it over the icon for the trash can, which is not actually a can. I’ll be rewarded by the sound of paper crumpling — even though no paper was involved.


This story first appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.

Each of these elements is a skeuomorph: a design feature common to tools that began life in one era but live on in another, doing the same job with different components. Archaeologists invented the term to make sense of ancient objects that bore traces of their antecedents, like ceramic cups decorated with functionally superfluous clay recreations of rivets from earlier metalwork. Once you know the concept, you see skeuomorphs everywhere, from plastic lawn furniture that looks like wood-slatted Adirondack classics to the pointless miniature handles on lightweight plastic bottles of syrup.

The computer era birthed a whole new species of skeuomorph: software that echoes its physical predecessors. Hence folders and trash cans. Hence the shutter-click noise our digital cameras make, despite lacking mechanical shutters.

We might even view computers themselves as skeuomorphs. Their keyboards, perpendicular to a surface that responds to our keystrokes, carry the DNA of the typewriter, while their screens look like televisions. But they perform countless non-typewriter, non-TV functions, like connecting us to websites and social networks that beam our data 24/7 to profit-hungry corporations. In this case, skeuomorphism not only connects us to the past, but also distracts us from the present. “Laptop” sounds a whole lot better than “data farm.” Don’t expect a re-brand any time soon.