Another word I didn’t know: skeuomorphic

Skeuomorphic: I’d never even seen it before until while browsing Arts and Letters Daily (as is my wont) I spied the title ‘The future of the book shouldn’t be skeuomorphic‘, written by Tom Abba for the New Statesman. But before we get to Tom’s article, let’s investigate this new word (new to me, anyway).

You’ll find this on Slideshare:

A quick search reveals that skeuomorphic is something that leading web (user interface) designers don’t seem very keen on (I know, ending a sentence with a preposition and all that!). A search also thankfully lets us know that the idea of a skeuomorph is quite simple: “a physical ornament or design on an object made to resemble another material or technique” (Wikipedia). And it’s easy to come up with examples: cheap jewellery made to look like genuine diamonds; fake ‘mag’ wheels; imitation wooden floorboards; the calendar on your smartphone made to look like a physical object.

It’s in the digital world that the concept becomes more intriguing. For quite a while, the web pages we designed were deliberately made to look like something we were already familiar with (that pesky preposition again!), such as a room or a newspaper. You can imagine how this became a debatable topic (‘ornament or affordance?’), with some arguing that it made the online world more attractive and inviting, and others contending that it restricted the development of creative ideas and progress.

If this diagram intrigues, click to see the vague details revealed – it’s a play on the hype cycle.

Others have outlined this more cogently and coherently than I, a debate which can be summarised as the fight between skeuomorphism and flat design (a fairly self-explanatory concept). A good example is Sasha Greif’s ‘Flat Pixels: The Battle Between Skeuomorphism and Flat Design‘. Go, read it, it’s written plainly and is exceptionally well illustrated; find out how this has become the current battlefield for Apple/Microsoft/Google.

Now back to Tom Abba’s article. What about the future of the book? Should a digitized book look like a real book? This question applies not only to the physical appearance, but also to the way we interact with an online book (such as how we turn the pages, and even pages themselves). The short article argues that “we should replace books with something different and better”, and points us to an ongoing project aiming to do just that: REACT: Books & Print.

REACT stands for ‘Research & Enterprise in Arts and Creative Technology’. It’s a joint UK venture between academia and the business community, fostering collaboration “between arts and humanities researchers and creative companies. These collaborations champion knowledge exchange, cultural experimentation and  the development of innovative digital technologies in the creative economy.” Check the ‘About’ page, but don’t bother with the video explaining the concept: it doesn’t, just offers lots of positive and jolly statements from participants on how great it’s going to be.

My recent book purchases

You’re better off to go straight to the ‘Books&Print’ Sandbox (designed to “explore the future of the printed word in a digital age”), or, to see Tom’s specific project, have a look at ‘these pages fall like ash‘, where he and his colleagues “will invite an audience to participate in a narrative experience; accessing, altering and writing a locative story that will showcase the possibilities of the form and challenge traditional publishing norms.”

It’s only just started this year, it’s exciting stuff, working at the boundaries and challenging conventional approaches and perspectives. Of course not all the projects will be ground-breaking, but it would be good to see the work have an effect and advance our thinking and methods.

But as you know if you’ve read this blog before, I still like my books.

photo credit: nicolasnova via photopin cc
photo credit: G A R N E T via photopin cc

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