Fear the Skeuomorph. Embrace the Skeuomorph.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 6a00d8341d4dc653ef016762e9e5f0970b-500wiSeth Godin, a prolific internet pundit on a multitude of subjects, recently published a rant about skeuomorphs, which started off like this:

“For as long as I’ve been in digital media, skeumorphs have annoyed me. The original CD ROMs, for example, often had a home screen that started with a bookshelf, and you clicked on the ‘book’ you wanted to ‘open’ (excessive use of quotations intentional). Here’s the thing: bookshelves are a great idea if you want to store actual books on an actual shelf. They’re a silly way to index digital information, though.”

If you didn’t know before, you will have guessed by now that a skeuomorph is a design element from an old thing, superimposed on a new one. If you are observant, you will also have noticed that Seth does not know how to spell skeuomorph, which is OK, since 99.9% of his readers don’t know how to spell it either.

By the way, I think that printing a cork-colored filter on a cigarette that no longer has cork involved is just dandy, if that sort of thing floats your boat. But when skeuomorphs get in the way of how we actually use something or build something, they demonstrate a lack of integrity on the part of the designer. Embracing the convenient at the expense of the effective invites ridicule at best and failure at worst. We can take this thinking even further, though. If we are creating an organization to publish emusic or ebooks, it makes no sense to copy the organization of the past music labels and publishers. High unit pricing, copy protection, significant advances, big launch parties and royalties all make much less sense when the fundamental rules of the product itself, as well as its distribution, have changed. There is even less sense in things like office buildings and layers of vice presidents. Yes, the brain is organized by analogy. Analogy is one of the important keys to understanding. But, no, the analogy doesn’t have to hit us over the head. The more obvious the analogy, the less effort the creator has put into telling us his story. When it’s cheaper to ship, then risks are lower and you don’t need to staff up to avoid mistakes. This means you can take more risks, be less obvious and abandon what feels safe for what is safe. This consistency of structure is the single biggest reason that motivated market leaders (in any industry) fail to transition to new paradigms–they insist on skeuomorphic business models, bringing along the stuff that got them this far, even when it’s unnecessary. This is why Conde Nast is doomed, even as the population spends more (not less) time consuming media.

Yes, it’s far easier to get understanding or buy in quickly (from investors, in-laws and users) when you take the shortcut of making your digital thing look and work just like the trusted and proven non-digital thing. But over and over again, we see that the winner doesn’t look at all like the old thing. eBay doesn’t look like Sotheby’s. Amazon doesn’t look like a bookstore. The funding for AirBnB doesn’t look like what it took to get Marriott off the ground… The only reason to venture into the land of the new is to capitalize on the advantages of the new paradigm. Preserving even the cosmetic trappings of the old is not going to do anything for you.

“Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. ” — George Santayana.

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