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We Need More Skeuomorphism

It’s another lesson in design thinking.

The first time I heard a colleague use the word “skeuomorphism,” I was delighted to discover that there was a name for the design methodology that I was seeing everyday but not really thinking about. Examples are literally all over the typical computer “desktop” (a verbal skeuomorph), as evidenced by the little icons representing mail, file folders, recycling bins, video, snapshots, etc.

In the world of digital design interface, the term skeuomorphism describes the intentional use of images representing real-world objects to help orient people in the use of their virtual counterparts. It’s why the icon you press to make a phone call looks like an old-school phone receiver. It’s why the YouTube logo is shaped like a 20th Century TV screen. It’s why apps like Apple Pay were introduced using graphics shaped like a credit card. It made the process of assimilating new objects and services feel less weird and more familiar.

What’s funny is that now that I have a word for it, I’m seeing IRL examples of skeuomorphs everywhere. For example, when I need to take my electric vehicle to a public charging station, I notice that the icon on the sign incorporates the shape of a gas pump and a two-pronged plug. It’s a nod to how we process new information — an understanding that we can transition to new technology more easily if we begin thinking about it as an evolution of something we’re already comfortable with.

This makes me wonder what currently ubiquitous items will help us transition to the things that replace them in the future. Will the icon to initiate voice-control steering of our personal drones be shaped like a joystick? Or will the sign that tells us where to wait for our autonomous-driving vehicle use a flashing steering wheel symbol, even though vehicles will no longer have or need them?

It’s fun to think about, but I suspect there are more immediate and useful ways we could apply this user-friendly approach to introducing change. I’d like to start within the events industry. For example, if we want people to surrender their backpacks and large bags before entering the show floor by placing them in an automated storage/retrieval system, we might introduce signage that mimics a high school locker, or maybe an airport baggage claim. If we want people to register using facial recognition, we may use an icon associated with taking selfies. And if we want people to record their digital critique of our event, we may ask them to step into a booth with a sign featuring a 35-mm film camera.

Obviously, I’m not sure how this will all play out. I do know that we need to think like designers. And design thinking originates in a place of empathy and optimism. Knowing that people seek what’s “normal,” we must reinforce stability to foster change. We need to take a design-led approach to introducing people to new technologies and systemic innovation. This begins with a sense of empathy for the first-time user. It finds a tipping-point when enough people feel comfortable engaging with the new way of doing things.

That’s why skeuomorphic sensibilities work. They help make things clear, simple, normal and safe. That’s something we can all use more of, right here in the real world.

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