Skeuomorphs and Spandrels: Examining the Interaction of Culture and Design


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This presentation is in Pecha Kucha format (presented as 20 slides, 20 seconds each) and was given in Tokyo, August 2010 at the EPIC conference.

After recently stumbling on these two concepts, Skeuomorphs and Spandrels, I was struck by how they illustrate ways that culture and design interact in the adoption of new technology.

Skeuomorphs–features of technological artifacts that have lost their functional purpose but been retained in later generations of that artifact nonetheless–leverage a historical precedent in order to communicate a functional or cultural value to consumers. This approach simplifies adoption by using the consumers’ own prior knowledge to mask the new with the familiar.

Spandrels–features of technological artifacts that have been retained because they have taken on some new or different functional or cultural value than that which was originally intended–leverage the consumers’ own creativity to imbue an artifact with utility where none existed before. This approach simplifies adoption by outsourcing the innovation to the consumer who then creates the new directly from the fabric of the familiar.

Each concept illustrates how we can consider the consumer a participant in the innovation process, and provides a potential approach to imbue the objects we design with the functional or cultural value necessary for adoption.

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Skeuomorphs and Spandrels: Examining the Interaction of Culture and Design

  1. 1. Skeuomorphs & Spandrels Examining the Interaction of Culture and Design John Payne 1. Kon-nichiwa, My name is John Payne, and my talk today is on skeuomorphs and spandrels. I offer these two concepts to illustrate the often unintentional “cultural affordances” that are necessary to ease adoption and adaptation to technology.
  2. 2. 2. First, Skeumorphs: a mouthful of a word from the field of archaeology… "A skeuomorph is a design feature of an artifact that is no longer functional in itself, but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time.” Image via:
  3. 3. 3. For example: the watch pocket on a pair of jeans. Why would designers push these non-functional characteristics forward? As Garnet Hertz, a professor at Art Center College of Design has said: “Skeuomorphs are created because the future is built out of the present.” image via:
  4. 4. 4. Katherine Hayles touches on the subject of Skeuomorphs in her book, “How We Became Posthuman,” "Skeuomorphs visibly testify to the social or psychological necessity for innovation to be tempered by replication... [they] look to the past and future, simultaneously reinforcing and undermining both…
  5. 5. 6. Apple relies heavily on skeuomorphic design to make their products easier to understand. For their target audience, this “notes” application leaves virtually no question what it is for or how to use it. In the design world, this approach is commonly called the “design metaphor.”
  6. 6. 7. They have been criticized for the heavy handedness of this strategy, however. Adam Greenfield, one of their strongest critics says: “Feast your eyes on the leatherette Executive Desk Blotter nonsense going on in Notes, the page-curl animation in iBooks. What are these but misguided coddles, patronizing crutches, interactively horseless carriages?”
  7. 7. 8. “I want to use the strongest language here,” he goes on. “This is a terribly disappointing renunciation of possibility on Apple’s part, a failure to articulate an interface-design vocabulary as “futuristic” as, and harmonious with, the formal vocabulary of the physical devices themselves.”
  8. 8. 5. Robert Coover’s CAVE room is a decidedly non-skeumorphic counter example. It’s a virtual reality space designed to allow readers to experience literary works in a new way, navigating with a wand while wearing a virtual reality helmet. CAVE’s readers need instruction on how to use this new technology. Image via: -
  9. 9. 9. Skeuomorphs create cultural affordances that soften the blow of the new. In this hotel sign from the early 1900’s, instructions on how to use electric light are offered to patrons. This sign directly identifies three critical utilities of a skeuomorph: 1. addressing the viewers confusion about what this new technology is, 2. how to use it, and 3. their fear of it as unfamiliar.
  10. 10. 10. Ok, now let’s talk about Spandrels… another word originally introduced in one field and adapted for use in another. In Architecture, a spandrel is the space between two arches or between an arch and a rectangular enclosure. Image via:
  11. 11. 11. Stephen Gould and Richard Lewontin co-opted the term for use in evolutionary biology. They noted that, to the observer, the seamless integration of the spandrels of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice may seem intentional, but they are actually a by-product of other design choices. Image via:
  12. 12. 12. Applied to evolutionary biology: A spandrel is specifically not a product of adaptive selection, rather its’ made possible by the evolution of some other characteristic. Bird feathers, for instance, may have originated as insulation, but over time, however, they have come to be used for another purpose, flight. Image via:
  13. 13. 13. So why do spandrels come about? When it comes to design, one reason is simple availability (often through disuse). The high line in New York City is an example. Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro have adapted this former railroad structure to new use, a green space in an area of the city that had none. Image via:
  14. 14. 14. Another reason is lack of available resources. These are photographs of shivs, improvised bladed weapons that were created by prisoners in the United States . Though disturbing, they illustrate the concept of reuse in a very direct and compelling way. Image via:
  15. 15. 15. A final reason is the conscious desire for reuse and sustainability. Freitag is a Swiss company that uses recycled truck tarps, automobile seat belts, and bicycle inner tubes to make messenger bags. Interestingly, You can also create your own custom bag on their web site.
  16. 16. 16. In the design world, this approach is often called “adaptive reuse.” In, How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand says, “function reforms form, perpetually.” Some design principles he offers: 1. Design for multiple possible uses, 2. Leave your design open to contribution, 3. Study your design “in time” (how would your design adapt if the cultural context changed?)
  17. 17. 17. One final example illustrates these “spandrelic” principles in conscious action: This package design by Celery Design Collaborative for Lemnis Lightning can be reused and transformed into a lampshade for the bulb it protects in shipment.
  18. 18. 18. I’ll end with a couple examples of technological innovation that illustrate the challenges (and possibilities) of technologies not yet imbued with cultural affordances. This is Aimee Mullins, an American athlete. Her prostheses, though visually shocking, have enabled her to compete with the so-called “able bodied” at a world-class level. Image via:
  19. 19. 19. This is Steve Mann, a Canadian academic who has augmented his vision with wearable computers for most of his life. I show these final examples to illustrate that technologies without the necessary cultural affordances can leave us feeling a little uncomfortable and even a little afraid of the possibilities? Image via:
  20. 20. 20. Both concepts, skeuomorphs and spandrels (the former looking to the past, and the latter to the future), show the necessity of cultural affordances, intentional or not, to bring the consumer and their culture into direct participation in the innovation process. Domo Arigato. Image via:
  21. 21. Skeuomorphs & Spandrels Examining the Interaction of Culture and Design @jeanphony