I am collecting nominations for future Top 10s, my feature in The New Review, the Independent on Sunday magazine. Andrew Denny suggested anachronistic skeuomorphs, symbols such as the floppy disk to mean “save” and a bellows camera as a speed camera sign. I am also compiling a Top 10 People Who Would Have Been Good On Twitter, with Twitter name and a sample tweet. Best so far from Rob Warm: @Schrödinger: “wow! check out this possibly cute cat pic”

There’s a covert reminder in there: Rentoul is not just a son-of-the-manse, but a King’s, Cambridge, English-graduate.

NotesAnd I’m not going to pretend I’d ever personally met a “skeuomorph” until that moment. I think with the information so far, I’d be calling it a “pictogram” or an “icon”.

Indeed, on this evidence, I’m not convinced “skeuomorph” is the proper term here.

As I understand “skeuomorph”, it implies “visual metaphor”. As used by Rentoul, it’s a metaphor of a metaphor: the term (see below) seems to originate in archaeology. The Greek roots suggest: “implement”+””shape”. So, when — in the old pre-MacOs7 dispensation,  — I opened Notes, and got something that looked like an American yellow legal pad, that was a skeuomorph (as right).

My doubts increase when I refer to the OED:


Even though I note the side-bar admonition, in red — This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1933) — there’s absolutely nothing there to suggest why we should prefer “skeuomorph” to the generally-accepted, and simpler “icon”.


As I now understand the term, a “skeuomorph” is brought about when a new product (say an electric kettle) mimics the form of its predecessor, with disregard to the change of function. There is no functional reason why the electric kettle should mimic the form of the stick-it-on-the-hob job, except (a) innate conservatism, (b) customer familiarity. There actually are good reasons why not: stick the electric job on the hob, and you’ve possibly buggered it. Yet pretty well every technological innovation begins the same way: early railway carriages retained the format of horse-drawn coaches. It takes the designer some time for form to follow function.

If we refer to the wikipedia entry, which seems — at least to me — severely disconnected,  the confusion becomes greater, and Apple-specific:

Apple Inc., while under the direction of Steve Jobs, was known for its wide usage of skeuomorphic designs in various applications. The debate over the merits of Apple’s extensive use of skeuomorphism became the subject of substantial media attention in October 2012, a year after Jobs’ death, largely as the result of the reported resignation of Scott Forstall, described as “the most vocal and high-ranking proponent of the visual design style favored by Mr. Jobs”. Apple designer Jonathan Ive, who took over some of Forstall’s responsibilities and had “made his distaste for the visual ornamentation in Apple’s mobile software known within the company”, was expected to move the company toward a less skeuomorphic aesthetic. With the announcement of iOS 7 at WWDC, Apple officially shifted from skeuomorphism to a more simplified design, thus beginning the so-called “death of skeuomorphism.”

Someone must be to blame, and I finger Professor Dan O’Hara.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I reckon Rentoul’s borrowing of “skeuomorph” is precisely the kind of inflated language he would deplore in others.


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Filed under History, Independent, John Rentoul, Oxford English Dictionary

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