Skeuomorphic Design

I learned a new word today: Skeuomorph. As in, “the iPad DJ app is a perfect example of skeuomorphic design”.

A skeuomorph is a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original (thanks wikipedia).

Some examples, also from wikipedia:
Various spoke patterns in automobile hubcaps and wheels leftover from carriage wheel construction,
Fake woodgrain printing on thousands of modern items of plastic, Formica, or pressboard furniture,
Fake stitching in plastic items that used to be made of leather or vinyl and actually stitched together.

A Ducati Monster gas cap has five bolts, but only three of them are of any use, similar to an Audi TT gas cap I believe:

So maybe the gas cap isn’t a good example.

Has anyone designed a skeuomorph product or parts? Did you have to take a shower afterwards, or were you OK with it? A plastics engineer here once tried to talk me into “molding in the hex bolt heads” … but only once.

Nice, I hadn’t heard that term before, but will be using it for sure. One I’ve been using a lot is


[tal-is-muhn, -iz-] Show IPA
–noun, plural -mans.
a stone, ring, or other object, engraved with figures or characters supposed to possess occult powers and worn as an amulet or charm.
any amulet or charm.
anything whose presence exercises a remarkable or powerful influence on human feelings or actions.

: something producing apparently magical or miraculous effects

—Related forms
[tal-is-man-ik, -iz-] Show IPA
, tal·is·man·i·cal, adjective
tal·is·man·i·cal·ly, adverb

I’m really glad to know that there’s a word for that. I’ve been using the term ‘vestigial’, as in the evolutionary term for body parts that have lost their original function but are still carried on as traits.

Most times it makes me cringe but on certain products, like Leica camera bodies, it can work out.

Senior ‘senior’ designers I worked with at my first corporate job who were around when drafting tables, chalk bags and blue prints were the norm used the term “farkle”; a combination of function and sparkle. At first I thought it had something to do with sparkling farts or something and so I thought it was an amusing derogatory comment during design reviews, well, until looked it up: Urban Dictionary: farkle

That’s actually really funny because we use the term “farkle” all the time at our school to describe the cheesy lens flare glints people put on their chrome renderings.

@linda LOL, yep, that’s what I was thinking!
@slippyfish, would chrome plated plastic count? not a proponent of that though did find it had to be a compromise at times regarding cost to get a little farkle on a detail like a button. I think authentic material of chrome metal would warrant a more talismatic (@yo) affect… like chrome rings on Leica lenses (@linda)

I think Leica might be a good example of what slippy is talking about? Also, many cars have an upper grille even though their radiators draw air from bellow the bumper. The upper grille is a hold over of 60’s and 70’s tech, but is now the face of the brand…

Has anyone designed a skeuomorph product or parts? Did you have to take a shower afterwards, or were you OK with it?

Not exactly fake wood grain or bolts but yeah, working in an home accessories field requires designing not so useful objects with not so useful details sometimes.

Sometimes it bothers me but I try not to worry about it much. Rather than getting depressed about it, I like to think that it just takes time to educate the mass market consumer`s mind. A little step at a time…

I think the car grille is a perfect example, in addition to that curly-qued silver piece on the C-pillar of certain Cadillacs, which I believe was once a horse-whip holder. And then there’s stick on “gills” or vents that get stuck on front fenders over the wheel well…yuck…

On a tinier level, even continuing a reveal line across an unbroken surface, if it abuts an actual reveal line, would also be a skeuomorph.

How about…Big fat rotating bezels on a wristwatch that has no business going under water for scuba-diving.

… that curly-qued silver piece on the C-pillar of certain Cadillacs which I believe was once a horse-whip holder.

A clarification; they are called “Landau bars”. A Landau was a particular form of carriage, in particular, one with a “falling top” (predecessor of the “convertible”); it was essentially TWO tops which locked together in the middle. The folding mechanism consisted of a four-bar linkage; the “curly-qued” silver piece locked the frame work into position. The original “Landau” was created in Landau, Germany.

circa 1880

Since “carriages” were only owned by the wealthy these drop-tops were viewed, by other wealthy folks, as a sign of elevated status. Not as practical as a hardtop, I guess they were considered a “luxury”. Funny, a rich man’s luxury… …

I like vestigial as well…

This sounds very similar to a topic we covered in our design history class. One of the ideas that kept coming up for the different movements or styles was did they use materials honestly? Do they force a material to do something that it isn’t suited for and/or cover up what it was really made out of? Such as the knotted vine forms carved out of blocks of wood in the Art Nouveau period. I think as technology moves on and more materials are developed, the design of current products sometimes must be changed to match the processes and materials that are coming into the market, but sometimes design details are held over from the old design much like the “Vestigial” details that Linda mentions. One example I can think of is the wood Veneers on the Atari 2600.

Interesting topic.

I think there are a few different terms/ideas being mixed up here however, IMHO.

I’ll recap from my perspective, but leave out names so you can call them what you like.

  1. Decorative items that mimic a previously functional or material characteristic. Such as wood look plastic veneer, molded in bolts or stitching or side portal vents or scoops on a car that go nowhere. These are pure fakery and dishonest design unless used in a very knowing and ironic way such as a tromp l’oeil effect of printed stitching and pockets on some recent Marc Jacobs outerwear I’ve seen.

  2. Design elements (functional or not) that reference historical details such as toggle switches in a mini or mechanical VDO type gauges on an electronic device. These can be used as emotional connective elements or to evoke a certain feeling of nostalgia or history. If done right, these can be great. If done poorly are lazy design.

  3. Design constructions or features that left over from past products but have no current function, but have been adopted as standard. Such as the width of railroad tracks still being the same as the width of horse + carriage wheel tracks. Or women’s clothing buttoning on the opposite side as mens back from women were dressed by the Chambermaid. These are often overlooked and built into products by designers not challenging the paradigm. More Anthropological curiosity than design issue, perhaps.

Thoughts? More examples?


You might say that the footwear industry is largely skeuomorphic. Not because of any outward detail, but because footwear is made on a last, and lasts are derived from and evolved from old world cobbler’s techniques, not on foot shapes, with few exceptions (Birkenstocks, Nike Footscape, some of the original Nike Frees and many other attempts from other brands). When brands try to create a shoe around the foot, it is typically rejected by consumers as not being shoe like enough, fast, sleek, and sexy enough and as a consumer, I don’t disagree. Sometimes it so heavily effects the way we perceive things.

That was a more positive example, a negative would be non movable shutters on tract home houses. The home is loaded with examples of this.

front paged: Yo! C77 Board Alert: Skeuomorphic Design - Core77

How about the 1940 telephone receiver profile you always see on cell phone buttons and UI clicks.

I think this is a distinct idea, which is called ‘path dependence’, defined in Wikipedia as technology “where functional behavior is maintained when the reasons for its design no longer exist”. Thus its not a ‘fake’, and I think this is a better analogue to “vestigial” than the original concept. “Vestigial”, like our human coccyx, means that there was once a reason for it…but just because we aren’t monkeys doesn’t mean we are “faking it” with our coccyx.

I like the “ch-chik” on digital cameras, and the degree to which the camera sounds mechanical. Also the Apple OS clock has a little springy rebound to the hand movement which is simulating a mechanical function.

I agree yo, the home is probably loaded, or littered with examples of this, and like footwear people might not want to live in a home without such things.

No, items from #3 are not fake, they are just left over. Generally speaking I don’t have a problem with these, and often they present a great starting point for real innovation that challenges the status quo. Like the re-arrangement of components in an electric car that puts the motors in skateboard deck type configuration rather than where the horse’s feedbag was.

The click on digital cameras is different and belongs in category #2, likewise the clock thing.

The shutters that do nothing on a house or any number of faux victorian details made out of EPS foam with stucco on top are #1 category and are junk. Same goes for those plastic fake hinges on a garage door that makes it look like a stable.

I think there is a big difference between the categories hence why I think they need to be identified and discussed separately.


Stereo component systems, and also VCRs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, Set top boxes etc, being made to a standard size, which is a Long Play album size, even though LP players aren’t part of most home-entertainment systems now.

It is knowing the history of why things are the way the are, the politics and decisions behind them. I believe the typewriter keyboard QUERTY setup was a result of just being able to get them to work, so computers maintain that, but mobile phone texting on a ten/ twelve digit number pad required a different solution.

Here in Australia when you order a beer in a pub, different states have different names for the ‘standard’ glass (pot, middy, schooner, pint etc.). In Adelaide the smallest glass is a “Butcher” (200ml) and it has a flared top which no other glass style has. This comes from the NewMarket hotel which was next to an abattoir, and the butchers needed a small drink that they could hold with blood covered hands. The glass style remained when it’s original use disappeared.

You can really go down the path of the modernist idea of no superfluous ormamentation, or put on lots of visual cues for an emotional response.

Precisely right. The Monster gas cap doesn’t need 2 extra bolts, that screw blind into the aluminum bezel. Hell, they add weight!

On the other hand, I read once on the Confederate Motorcycles site that the V-twin angle configuration had something to do with WW2 rotary piston-driven airplanes, using 2 cylinders instead of 7 or 8. This is a #3 example.

Serifs on type.

I’ve just joined this forum, and wow… what an interesting topic this is.

Most DSLR cameras would fit into this category I suppose, as there is no real reason they have to mimic the operation of traditional film SLR cameras, their prisms, and their snap-up viewfinder mirrors.

Would user-interface icons in software fit under the skeuomorph category? For example, the 3.5" floppy disk to represent “save”, and the magnifying glass to represent “zoom”.

Often design forms a language of visual cues, which when broken down to their elements, amount to nothing more than visual customs which we are used to seeing. Just like in oral language, there’s no plausible reason why, for example, the sound “apple” should be connected with the object - but through centuries of linguistic development this custom becomes perpetuated, and we no longer question the connection between the sound and the object anymore. Industrial design skeuomorphs are possibly just very young examples of this phenomenon.