By Gordon Rugg
In another post, I discussed ways of making a design interesting by making it difficult or impossible to parse.
This article looks at one way of achieving this, by using skeuomorphs – in other words, deliberately making part of the design look like something else. It’s a long-established design concept, though with variable results…
Background theory: Parsing and ambiguity
I’ll start with a very brief overview of what is meant by parsing a design.
The term “parsing” is used in traditional grammar to describe the process that we use to identify the underlying meaning(s) of a particular phrase or sentence. For example, we can parse “old men and women” into either “old men and old women” or into “women, and old men”.
We do a very similar type of parsing when we look at a scene. Objects and scenes can be ambiguous, just as sentences and phrases can be ambiguous, and we need to parse what we see in order to make sense of it. Here’s a classic example.
The picture below can be parsed in either of two ways.
This image can be parsed either as two black faces in profile looking at each other, or as a white vase. Both parsings make complete sense of all the information in the picture, but they are very different interpretations from each other. Because both of them are completely consistent with all the information available, the brain is unable to choose one of them as the unequivocally correct solution, so the brain will keep switching between the two parsings as long as the image is visible.
How does this discussion of parsing relate to designers and architects, writers and artists? It relates to them for two reasons:
First, on a positive note, it provides a way of adding life to a design. A deliberately ambiguous design usually involves novelty, and because it’s impossible to parse into a single solution, it will continue to be interesting even to people who meet it frequently, such as people who live or work in the building.
Second, on a less positive note, ambiguous designs can cause unintended problems to people who have to interact with the result, whether it’s a domestic product or an entire building.
One undesirable side-effect is that visual ambiguity works in a very similar way to jokes, where a key point is the switch from one interpretation to another. Having to encounter the same visual ambiguity day after day can easily become as irritating as having to hear the same joke day after day.
Another reason is the risk that the design will confuse users. At best, this will cause irritation; at worst, it can have serious practical implications for cost, for health and safety, and potentially for human life.
One way of creating ambiguous parsing in a design is by making the design skeuomorphic, so that the end product looks like something else. That’s the topic of this article.
Skeuomorphism is a concept popularised by Don Norman, the author of various insightful and highly readable books on design. It involves something constructed in one medium (e.g. clay) that copies a feature from another medium (e.g. metal). In the strict sense, a skeuomorph involves copying a feature that was functional in the original medium, but that has no functional role in the medium of the copy. This is often encountered in archaeology, where a new, expensive product is copied in an older, cheaper medium, and where the copy faithfully reproduces features from the new technology, such as a clay pot that mimics a new metal pot, right down to having bumps in the clay to mimic the rivets that held the pot together.
For example, there’s a plausible argument that one unusual feature of early Minoan architecture, namely stone pillars that become broader towards the top, is a skeuomorph from when pillars were made from wooden tree trunks. The argument goes that the tree trunks, which were broader at the base than at the top, were deliberately used upside-down, so that the trees couldn’t start growing again because of their bases making contact with the earth (which is a real risk with some types of wood).
There are several common reasons for the use of skeuomorphic designs.
Skeuomorphism is sometimes a semi-accidental carry-over of old habits from a previous medium, as in the case of the Minoan pillars. This can have various advantages; there’s a sporting chance that the old design will work just as well in the new medium, and the old design may also be viewed as the right and proper design for the purpose, especially in conservative contexts such as design of religious sites.
Making transitions easier
Skeuomorphism can also be used deliberately, as a way of making a new product easier to use.
Digital cameras, for instance, usually mimic the sound of a mechanical shutter when the user takes a photo, as an auditory signal that the photo has been taken. For a lot of digital cameras, autofocus involves a stage where you partially depress the shutter switch, and it’s easy to depress the shutter fully by accident and to take a picture before you’re ready. A visual signal would be distracting, since you’re concentrating on the image that you’re trying to photograph, so an auditory signal has advantages. If you’re going to use an auditory signal, then you might as well use one that’s already familiar to photographers, namely the sound of a mechanical shutter.
This deliberate use of a skeuomorph made it easier for users to switch from mechanical to digital cameras, by keeping that design feature constant, and thereby reducing the cognitive load involved in learning how to use the new medium.
A third form of skeuomorphism is the visual joke, where the shape of a building imitates the shape of something that relates to the building. For instance, an architect might design a naval museum so that it looks like a boat, picking up on the naval theme, regardless of whether that shape has any relationship to how the building will be used.
This is quite popular in architecture for some reason, with varying degrees of subtlety. The example at the start of this article is from the less subtle end of the scale.
Note how the spout and the handle of the “teapot” have wire braces to support them in place. This is a common side-effect of skeuomorphs; the change from one medium to a different medium, or a change in scale, introduce new practical issues that can have significant implications for safety and for structural integrity.
The next image illustrates this point on a grand scale. It really does show a hotel built on top of a hill, in the shape of an ocean liner. The word “Why?” comes to mind.
Although skeuomorphs can be interesting, and can make for a smoother transition to a new technology or medium, they can also have disadvantages.
Some of the disadvantages appear at first sight to be minor. One common problem with skeuomorphic buildings is that the designer has to juggle two different underlying sets of design principles.
- One set of principles involves the outward appearance of whatever the building is trying to imitate – in the case above, the outward appearance of a ship.
- The second set of principles involves how people parse a building for purposes like finding the entrance.
The usual conventions for finding an entrance in a traditional building include the following:
- The main entrance is in the centre of the façade
- The main entrance is at the end of a visually distinct path
- The main entrance is flanked by visual decorations
- The main entrance has a distinctive colour
- The main entrance is bigger than any other nearby entrances.
Here’s an example; it’s Vigan Cathedral.
The main entrance to this cathedral is in the centre of a symmetrical façade, flanked by two pillars, within a pattern of vertical features that get larger towards the main entrance, with potted palms outside it, it has a distinctive black door juxtaposed with white masonry, the central door is larger than the doors on either side, and it has a couple of street lamps flanking the approach route directly in front of it. It’s a main entrance that would be hard to miss.
However, if you’re working with a building that looks like a ship, then you have a reduced number of visual cues available that you can use to identify the main entrance, because of the risk of spoiling the appearance of the ship look.
That’s an obvious problem when dealing with a skeuomorph as striking as the ship hotel. A subtler, but more pervasive, problem involves buildings that are skeuomorphs of geometric shapes, such as ovals and cubes. Here are some examples.
Where are the doors? There’s no obvious answer. There are a couple of large grey opaque panels near the centre of the building that might be doors, but they look much too big to be doors. The building is glass fronted, so one possible parsing of the grey panels is that they are temporary replacements for broken glass panes. There’s what looks like a white door frame near the left edge of the building, but it might be a reflection of a vehicle.
The next example is equally hard to parse.
There are multiple conflicting cues about where the possible doors are in the picture above. Some of the glass panels have white horizontal strips at their base. These strips might be intended as a visual cue that those panels are part of the wall; on the other hand, they might be kick panels, like the metal panels at the bottom of many wooden doors, and therefore be intended as a visual cue that those panels are doors. Two panels look as if they have white frames, and might therefore be doors, but the white frames might be part of the interior of the building rather than part of the glass panels – it’s hard to tell visually.
The next example has an obvious entrance, but the entrance design involves a change in the overall pattern of the building.
There is a visually distinctive break in the rectangular outline that is highly likely to be the entrance. The designer has used a distinctive cue that maintains the underlying geometric theme of the building, and that identifies a possible entrance, but at the cost of breaking the lines of the overall design.
At one level, problems identifying the entrance to a building aren’t usually a huge issue. You might experience some minor annoyance and delay the first time you encounter the building, but after that, you know the way in.
At another level, though, if you add up all the people who experience those minor hassles, it’s a pretty big number, and it’s a large quantity of minor annoyances that could have been avoided. Large numbers of people are being made to suffer inconvenience and irritation because of a designer’s focus on visual appearance at the expense of usability.
A more serious issue is when finding the correct entrance easily is a non-trivial requirement. This can be a significant problem for hospitals, where patients need to find their destination easily and swiftly. A surprisingly high proportion of late or missed appointments are due to patients not being able to find the correct part of the hospital, or of the building. Many patients have poor eyesight, and/or poor health, so finding the correct entrance easily is a much bigger issue for them than for healthy users of a building. It’s a problem that’s easily fixable, if you take a user-centred approach to the design, but if you’re focused on the shape rather than the purpose of the design, it’s easy to miss this.
One extreme case of a geometric skeuomorph causing a different sort of problem is The Case of the Walkie-Talkie Tower. This is a glass-fronted building designed with elegant geometric curves. The curves were primarily decorative. Not only were they not functional, they were actively dysfunctional, as nearby residents discovered the first time the building encountered a hot, sunny day.
The elegant concave glass surface focused the sunshine into reflected hotspots in the surrounding streets, generating temperatures high enough to cook eggs. On the other hand, it did look striking, and had a chance of winning a design award, so perhaps that was some consolation to people who lived in the hot zone…
Summary and conclusions
Skeuomorphism is a fascinating phenomenon in design, that is more widespread than is generally recognised. It’s a good servant, but it can easily become a bad master, and is arguably to blame for many user-hostile designs, when usability is made subservient to surface appearance. Used properly, though, it can be a very elegant way of easing transitions between old and new techologies, and of improving usability.