Got any skeuomorphs?
May 6, 2006 12:52 PM   Subscribe

What are some things that retain useless or vestigal features of earlier versions of the technology?

These are usually called skeuomorphs (sometimes spelled "skiamorphs," though not often). This concept is most common in design and architecture, but I am especially interested in words that are skeuomorphic.

Examples are:

—Wood grain on radios, lawn chair arms, and automobiles.

—Lights shaped like candles.

—"Dialing" a phone, now doubly skeuomorphic in the age of VOIP where we might just click on a name to Skype someone.

—"Turning off" a light.

—Web sites that are made to look like the thing they represent, like an online book that includes curled page corners, a cover, "next page" links. etc., or a shopping site that is an image of a store with things on shelves. An example.

—Shopping cart icons on ecommerce web sites.

—Diacritical marks in languages like French and Portuguese, where they are added to indicate a dropped character but otherwise have no effect on the modern pronunciation of the word.

—The reel-to-reel tape machine icon used on cell phones to indicate a voice mail message.
posted by TurkeyMustard to Writing & Language (55 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This may not be what you are after, but it is one of my favorite little pieces of trivia.

The first engineered artifical food flavoring was... tin. Before galvanized steel cans became widespread after WWII, canned goods were sold in actual tin cans. Tomatos, and other acidic foods, dissolved small amounts of tin into the food during storage.

Once zinc-plated galvanized steel cans were produced, consumers complained that canned tomatoes just didn't "taste right." Food processors developed an artificial tin flavor, which was then added to canned food. Over the years, it gradually removed.
posted by curtm at 1:04 PM on May 6, 2006 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure these things can all be described as 'useless' given that a lot of things (like the tape reel icon) are in fact iconic and symbolic. While the original direct representaton may be gone, it remains an accepted and used symbol. Oh, and I enjoy and use armrests on lawn chairs. Having said that:

- The fake shutter sound on many non-SLR digital cameras (which are near-silent if this feature is turned off).

- Tabs looking like paper tabs in Excel

- Leather texturing on plastics.

I'll probably think of more.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:04 PM on May 6, 2006

The only thing that really comes to mind for me (other than physical analog software metaphors, of which there are tons, like the shopping cart) are those car keys for fancy cars that are digit key based but still have the "key" form.
posted by heresiarch at 1:06 PM on May 6, 2006

Well, there's always the fact that the original QWERTY layout is designed to prevent keys on a physical typewriter from striking one another... it's meant to have letter pairs physically far apart. And our modern keyboards are still using that standard, even though other standards are usually a little faster. (not as much as it claimed, mind you, but a little.)
posted by Malor at 1:15 PM on May 6, 2006

Oh, that might not have been quite what you were looking for. Perhaps a better example might be the right-pointing arrow for Play that's used in all media players on computers, taken from tape recorders, even though there's no tape to move.
posted by Malor at 1:17 PM on May 6, 2006

1. The distinction between AM and FM in radios. Why do I care what band the station's on? I should be able to have presets set to stations regardless of the underlying technology.

2. [Perhaps] Power buttons on inkjet printers?

3. The text inside the front of passports: from my passport: "Her Brittanic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesy all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary." Who reads it (apart from the bearer), and who will pay attention to it? But once upon a time, it meant something.

A problem with some of the (very good) suggestions is that they may be vestigial in the sense that the thing they visually represent is archaic or somewhat inappropriate, but the function may not be representable (yet) by something more modern. So maybe a follow-on question would be -- what would you replace the "thing" with (if anything).

For instance the Excel tabs thing seems skeuomorphic (but then so is the whole of the spreadsheet concept), but what would you use instead?

As far as mine go, (2) and (3) I would simply eliminate.

I would eliminate (1) from the preset setting component, but allow it in some way in the station selection process when using regular tuning. But maybe alter the way it's done.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 1:31 PM on May 6, 2006

Shoe buckles. Neck ties.
posted by pracowity at 1:42 PM on May 6, 2006

The silver end bits of (at least) the "fun-size" versions of Hershey's bar. It used to have two wrappers, the silver, then the logo-adorned wrapper. Now it is one wrapper, and the two-ply nature is simulated.
posted by user92371 at 1:56 PM on May 6, 2006

jimmythefish wrote: - The fake shutter sound on many non-SLR digital cameras (which are near-silent if this feature is turned off).

That's actually a specific feature, for two reasons - 1) to let the user know a photo has successfully been captured, and 2) particularly on cell-phone cameras, it's something that is designed to not be turned off (in some cases) so as to not allow the cameras to be used surreptiously (as in bathrooms and changing rooms and the like).

Granted, the sound need not be a shutter sound, but it is almost instantly recognizable as the sound of a picture being taken, so useful to alert a potential photo takee that indeed a picture has been captured - a beep or other sound could be almost any electronic device doing other things.

In Japan, there are many public benches made from concrete, but shaped and painted as though they are wooden log benches.
posted by birdsquared at 1:59 PM on May 6, 2006

Like the SysRq key?
posted by jeb at 1:59 PM on May 6, 2006

spoilers on cars
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 2:13 PM on May 6, 2006

When you send an email to multiple people you CC: it, even though the notion of making a carbon copy has all but vanished (except perhaps for multiple part forms that you fill out by hand.)
posted by Rhomboid at 2:20 PM on May 6, 2006

In telephone systems there's what is known as "comfort tones". One example of that is the sound of the phone at the other end ringing. 50 years ago that was literally what you were hearing, because of the two-wire system. But in modern digital systems (and in particular in cell phones) ringing is handled an entirely different way.

However, people are used to hearing it, especially because it means that the number was dialed correctly and accepted by the phone system. Silence means "number not complete" or some other error condition.

Thus you get to hear the phone system simulate the sound of the remote phone ringing, even if it isn't ringing (i.e. the remote is a cell phone which hasn't yet received its page).
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:20 PM on May 6, 2006

The notion of "bookmarks" in the context of a web browser.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:32 PM on May 6, 2006

The clicking sound your turning signal makes. It used to be due to a mechanical relay, but these days they could make a turning signal silent (obviously they wouldn't for safe-driving reasons).
posted by awegz at 2:41 PM on May 6, 2006

How about the PC BIOS? (Written in 16-bit 8086 code, gack.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:46 PM on May 6, 2006

I'm not sure I understand the question properly, many of the answers provided are features that aren't useless at all. For instance, the qwerty keyboard is still the way it is because it has such a large installed base of people who are already familiar with typing rapidly with them. The cost of switching to something nominally superior (say dvorak) is deemed too high for most to be willing to pay. It's usefulness, then, is in its economy.

As for GUI metaphors like tabs or bookmarks, those all serve useful purposes too (knowledge transfer) although particular instances may be more or less successful. Just because we all may be hip to how a website or a piece of software works doesn't mean a first-time user necessarily will be and who's to say that having a website look like a book/store shelves won't make it easier for them to find their way around?
posted by juv3nal at 3:07 PM on May 6, 2006

Floppy disk drives on modern computers? yes, there's still some in use and it's not as common as it used to be...
posted by porpoise at 3:09 PM on May 6, 2006

Floppy disk icon button which stands for "Save" in computer applications.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 3:21 PM on May 6, 2006

I think it's important to seperate skeuomorphs from metaphors for abstract concepts. Bookmarks in a browser are a metaphor, because there isn't really a simple way of describing the concept, not a skeuomorph.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:23 PM on May 6, 2006

I think you missed the point entirely.. I'm not saying that bookmarks are useless, far from it. I'm saying that they are named after a vestigial concept (placing a piece of paper in a section of a book to keep ones place) that has absolutely no bearing on the modern PC. You know, just like the poster's example of shopping cart and reel-to-reel tape icons?
posted by Rhomboid at 3:38 PM on May 6, 2006

Then you're claiming ideogrammatic writing system are all skeuomorphic? ie. much of Chinese?
posted by five fresh fish at 4:29 PM on May 6, 2006

I know I am missing the point entirely. Is a skeuomorph considered to be, as blue_beetle said it is not, a metaphor for an abstract concept even if the metaphor is outdated?

If so, then saying "I feel lousy" when I have a headache, can that be considered a skeuomorphic use of the word since I am not infested with lice? If not, then I don't think representing video with a forward arrow, or e-mail with an envelope on a Web site are examples of skeuomorphs.

Not trying to be obnoxious, I really want to know what is and what isn't a skeuomorph.

An architectural example I can think of is strip mall pharmacies in the sunbelt, but now even in the northeast with a sort of faux Spanish tile roof and a kind of balcony thing on a non-existent second floor. I'm not explaining myself but the following link shows an example. That is a skeuomorph Walgreen's if I ever saw one!
posted by xetere at 5:01 PM on May 6, 2006

Perhaps it's peculiar to movies, but video displays which (a) make noise as they render text, and (b) render text one letter at a time, rather all-at-once. We no longer use teletypes or old Tektronics vector displays, but they live on as motifs in our flims.
posted by SPrintF at 5:08 PM on May 6, 2006

Well, there's always vinyl siding for buidlings. It all seems to come with a faux raised wood grain, even though wooden siding is sanded smooth and so shows no grain (when painted)
posted by Daddio at 5:12 PM on May 6, 2006

The "pen" for my Wacon tablet has a fake eraser on the opposite site from the nib. It's just a piece of plastic, modeled to look like an eraser. If you're drawing and you flip it over, the fake eraser switches you to the eraser tool in Photoshop. There's no reason you should have to flip it over like this. They could have just given you a button to press on the pen's side which enables Photoshop's eraser.
posted by grumblebee at 5:38 PM on May 6, 2006

From what I understand modern cell phone designs don't need any kind of protrusion in the way of an antenna, but the designer will sometimes add a plastic nubbin or an extendable doohickie just for the reassurance it provides to the would-be consumer that yes, this phone will get reception when you need it to, just look at the big honkin nubbin.
posted by moift at 5:41 PM on May 6, 2006

The human appendix.
posted by soiled cowboy at 5:56 PM on May 6, 2006

Using the F7 key for spell check in Outlook can be traced back to the original version of WordPerfect, a competitive product to Word. Word used F7 because WordPerfect users were used to it and Outlook uses it because Word users were used to it. The F keys are otherwise unused, in general, in Microsoft applications. (They whole idea of F-keys itself dates back to mainframes that needed "out of band" command signalling since there wasn't any on-screen UI to speak of, aside from text).
posted by GuyZero at 6:09 PM on May 6, 2006

Some books today are printed with uneven, 'rough' page edges. This imitates the way books used to be printed, when the pages were bound together on both sides and the first person to read the book had to cut along them with a knife before turning a page. I know there's a term for these types of books but the name escapes me and my google-fu is failing.
posted by Kronoss at 6:15 PM on May 6, 2006

Buttons sewn on the arms of mens jackets that don't actually do anything. Plastic shutters put up on houses and trailers that are screwed directly to the house and cannot move.
posted by Ken McE at 6:27 PM on May 6, 2006

Kronoss -- It's called a deckle edge. See here. Paper was made by hand by pressing wet pulp on a large screen and letting it dry. The edges tapered out to nothing. When the large sheet was cut into stationery, the thin edge was thought to be elegant, and an indication that the paper was made by hand. Ultra-high-class hand-made stationery is still made this way, but on small screens so the deckle is on all 4 edges.

All books are printed on large sheets, which are folded to create "signatures" of (usually) 32 pages. When you work in publishing, you need to be aware that you're working in multiples of 32 pages. Older books were bound by sewing the signatures into the binding back (called Smyth sewing), and the buyer had to cut the folds, leaving the edges unequal lengths. These are cuts, not deckle edges, though. These days, the folds are trimmed even at the bindery.

Deckle edges, and uneven edges, are classic skeuomorphs.

So is the manila folder used in icon bars for "save." In this case, as in so many seuomorphs, it was used to connect the computer function with the former action of physically putting a document in a folder and has continued as a common metaphor. It doesn't get in the way, and since an icon can stand for anything, it does no harm.

One skeuomorph that caused a lot of trouble was putting the automobile engine in the front, where a horse used to be. It took until the VW bug to realize that there was not particular reason to have that arrangement, which required a driveshaft and a large tunnel for it running from the front to the back of the car.

The first car turn signals were metal rods that popped out of the side of the car, in skeuomorphic imitation of hand signals. Eventually, someone figured out that a blinking front and tail light worked just as well.
posted by KRS at 6:47 PM on May 6, 2006

The url,
posted by bug138 at 6:53 PM on May 6, 2006

Thanks, KRS. That's the term I was trying to recall.
posted by Kronoss at 7:03 PM on May 6, 2006

Fake seams on pleather.
Hubcaps that look like spokes
The triglyphs and metopes on greek temples are stone skeumorphs that replicate the ends of wooden beams, and the gaps in between. This skeumorph has thus persisted for around 2500 years. The fluting on the columns is likewise a device that simulates adzed wood.
Architecture is a rich source of these, such as phony arches in steel buildings. The large arches at the base of the Eiffel tower are structurally useless, dead weight in fact hanging off a "teepee" like structure of four converging pillars.

Steven Jay Gould's well known essay "The Spandrels of Saint Marco....." addresses this to a degree.
posted by Rumple at 7:07 PM on May 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

You asked about skeuomorphic words as well, so here's my example: the Britishism "ring", in the sense of "I'll telephone you" which obviously dates from the time when phones had an actual bell inside. Nowadays phones make all sorts of noises, rarely sounding like bells, but the word persists.

Or the equivalent Americanism "call", like I'm gonna stick my head out the window and holler "Hey! TurkeyMustard! Let's talk!"
posted by Quietgal at 7:13 PM on May 6, 2006

Some books today are printed with uneven, 'rough' page edges.

God, I hate that. It is the perfect example of a silly-assed convention that needs to die.

The engine-in-front example is one that I think nails the concept for me. An assumption made for familiarities sake, though impractical.

Saying that a cell phone is ringing? Ain't an example of the concept: ringing doesn't describe the sound of a physical brass bell.

Ringing describes the sound a phone makes to alert you. Whether the phone is bashing a pair of brass bells or playing the sweet sound of Rock Me, Amadeus, it's performing an action we call "ringing."

It's a practical action and a practical term for the action.

That, or I'm unclear the concept being discussed.

But... hmmm. "Horsepower," that does sound like it should be considered skeuomorphic: while it is a practical term, its physical definition is so obtuse that it's really quite silly to use it instead of more sensible measures like kW.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:33 PM on May 6, 2006

Much of the Photoshop toolbar is beginning to feel this way for me. The vast majority of Dodging, Burning and Airbushing (to pick three) is done in Photoshop these days, and their real-world counterparts would probably look like a voodoo ritual to the average tween.

Gumblebee's Wacom eraser is a great example that reminds me of how the frisket metaphor in Photoshop has evolved very nicely into channel and layer operations. I never use my stylus eraser either; why should I, when I have the vastly superior layer mask at my disposal? This is an area where Photoshop begins to feel like a new variery of art supplies to me.
posted by Scoo at 7:44 PM on May 6, 2006

Pracowity: Ties are still quite useful in the cold.
posted by pompomtom at 8:37 PM on May 6, 2006

"Tape monitor" features on amps.
posted by pompomtom at 8:41 PM on May 6, 2006

The tuning and volume knobs on your car radio?
posted by kc8nod at 9:38 PM on May 6, 2006

All the washroom and street signs that depict a woman in a skirt.
posted by acoutu at 10:06 PM on May 6, 2006

Pompomtom: Ties are also useful after lunch when you have food on either your shirt or your (previous) tie...
posted by dantodd at 11:33 PM on May 6, 2006

pompomtom: Ties are still quite useful in the cold.

Scarves are quite useful in the cold. Neckties may, in a limited sense, be useful, but not quite useful. They are just part of a businessman's uniform, like epaulets on a soldier's jacket.
posted by pracowity at 6:34 AM on May 7, 2006

When you fly, on the airplane they show a safety movie. In the movie, all the passengers are wearing suits. On the real plane nobody is.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 7:50 AM on May 7, 2006

Much of the Photoshop toolbar is beginning to feel this way for me.

Same with video-editing software (NLE apps). They use metaphors from the old cut-and-splice world of physical film, even though almost no one edits that way any more. When I teach editing classes, my younger students always want to know why the folders in Avid are called "bins." In the old days, we used to keep film in actual bins. Now we keep Quicktime files in folders CALLED bins. Along the same lines, the slice tool -- used to make cuts -- has a razor-blade icon.

These aren't isolated examples. Nearly everything in these programs simulates working on an old flatbed editor (a physical system). This is generally a good thing, because many editors were trained on flatbeds. But as a new generation takes over, they won't get the metaphors.
posted by grumblebee at 8:19 AM on May 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

In my town most stop signs are apparently skeumorphic.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:21 AM on May 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Video gambling machines are funny. Many of them simulate one-arm bandits. There's no real reason for this, other than tradition. Any display of randomness would work just as well.
posted by grumblebee at 8:21 AM on May 7, 2006

Many holidays are like this. Not coming from a military community/family, Veteran's Day is just "a day off" for me.
posted by grumblebee at 8:24 AM on May 7, 2006

American society retains vestigial traces of civility.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:29 AM on May 7, 2006

The antenna nub on Nextel's Blackberry is an empty tube, put there because Nextel marketing believes that phones that do push-to-talk should have visible antennas.
posted by mendel at 9:07 AM on May 7, 2006

Rumple and xetere mentioned architecture. A noxious element of the ubiquitous Colonial, mandatory for houses in the DC area (and probably elsewhere in the East Coast and visible all over America) are the non-functional shutters tacked onto the wall either side of any window.

Ken McE, I've heard the function of those sleeve buttons was to inhibit soldiers on ceremonial guard duty from wiping their noses on their sleeves.

and porpoise, I use a floppy every day, for data transfer between home and office.
posted by Rash at 12:36 PM on May 7, 2006

The F keys are otherwise unused, in general, in Microsoft applications.

Well, I use F3 (search) and alt-F4 (close) all the time, and F1 (help) not infrequently, for a few examples, so I'd have to differ mildly, there.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:13 PM on May 7, 2006

Non-winding winders on quartz watches.
posted by holgate at 10:54 PM on May 7, 2006

It's not correct that antennas on modern cellphones are appendixes. It's true that a modern cell phone can operate without such an antenna, but you gain about 3 dB of signal with one extended. And the ideal size of the antenna is determined by the RF frequency.

The ideal dipole length for an 800 MHz phone is 37 centimeters, about 15 inches. The ideal dipole for 1900 MHz phones is 16 centimeters, about 6 inches.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:20 PM on May 8, 2006

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