On my radar: An obscure word is changing digital life

2013-06-24 12:00

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It’s rather telling that you cannot find a definition of skeuomorph in most printed dictionaries, yet you can in cyberspace. It’s a very obscure word that has suddenly appeared on my radar in the past two weeks, and with good reason.

This little-known word describes perfectly a significant tipping point we have reached in our digital worlds. As explained below, skeuomorphs are used, particularly in the realm of software design, to resemble real life (and often old-school) objects in a digital realm, even though there is no functional need for them to resemble the physical object.

What is a skeuomorph?

This definition of Skeuomorph courtesy Lev Grossman – Time Magazine

» The term skeuomorph (pronounced skyoo-uh-morf) refers to an element in an object’s design that’s no longer functionally necessary but has been retained for ornamental purposes.

» The term was coined by archaeologist Henry Colley March in 1890 in an article entitled: The meaning of ornament: Or its Archaeology and Its Psychology.

» The word is almost impossible to find in a dictionary, but is ironically the focus of intense 21st century debate in the field of digital-interface design, and will very soon change the way you interact with your digital gadgets.

For example, Apple users can delete items on their laptops by dragging them on to an icon that looks like a dustbin. In terms of functionality, it doesn’t have to look like a dustbin, but visually it creates a reassuring bridge between the physical and digital worlds.

The same applies to many of the icons we use daily on our computers or smartphones, like calendar pages that appear to flip or tear off, lined note paper on screen-top memos and wood-grained “shelves” that house our digital books and magazines.

There is no practical reason these icons or finishes have to resemble real life objects; it simply keeps us anchored in the offline world as we venture further and further into a digital realm.

However, there are two reasons this is all about to change and, in turn, change your daily interaction with your digital devices.

Firstly, most skeuomorphs are detail-heavy in terms of design. Keeping icons and symbols looking like fake three-dimensional objects simply means that the device uses up more time and data space maintaining something that is, in essence, not needed.

As smartphones become more and more sophisticated, processing power and speed are what provides a competitive edge between brands.

Changing the imagery into flatter, two-dimensional objects would cut out a lot of unnecessary design elements like shadows and reflections that lend digital icons a three-dimensional feel, and therefore increase processing speed.

Secondly, as we “adapt” less to technology, but rather co-evolve rapidly with it, the need to remind us of a physical object, in terms of on-screen functionality, is fading.

Touch screens have been one of the biggest game changers in technology. Take, for example, e-books.

The first e-books featured pages that could be flipped like real paper pager and, in many cases, accompanied by a sound of a page being flipped. With touch screen technology, most people who are familiar with e-books now just tap the edge of the screen to advance to the next page.

It has become apparent that we need less handholding in cyberspace than we used to. It is as if we’ve come full circle in terms of computer interface design.

Back in 1984, the late Steve Jobs led the Apple Mac revolution by providing a user-friendly interface, which in essence translated complicated computing instructions with skeuomorphisms that felt familiar and, most importantly, made computing easy.

Last October, Microsoft launched its new operating system, Windows?8, which has a decidedly unskeuomorphic appearance – brightly coloured tiles replacing the traditional desktop. Not to be beaten at their own game, Apple has just launched its new operating system, iOS 7, which is a significant departure from its own skeuomorphic design language – it is flatter and more two-dimensional, but still familiar.

So while this may seem like a lot of techno babble, it will eventually – albeit subtly – rewire your brain when it comes to navigating or interacting with your digital device.

Speaking at this year’s LeWeb London conference, John Battelle, chairperson and chief executive of Federated Media Publishing, said: “We change our behaviour based on the technologies we endorse. The more we use technology and interact with certain technologies, the more our behaviour changes and we adapt.”

He added that, as human beings, we are “becoming data” ourselves.

For technophobes, that could be a scary thought, but we’ve undoubtedly reached a tipping point where we have started existing in parallel universes, physical and digital, and the digital one looks decidedly flat.

Apple’s iOS 7 operating system (right) is brighter and more colourful than its predecessor

»?Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. Visit www.fluxtrends.co.za

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