The use of metaphor in digital design – making digital versions of real-life objects from bookshelves to car dashboards – has a strangely enduring appeal. Michael Stocking reviews the impact of this skeuomorphism on the future of the artist book.

My first job in what was then known as ‘multimedia’ industry was for a design agency. One of the early jobs we did was an internal multimedia brochure. This being 1991, the boss drove an Aston Martin and wanted the interface to look like the dashboard of his car. So that is what we built. You pressed buttons to go to various sections and the speedometer showed where you were. Steering wheel, walnut dashboard, indicators – the interface was a complete re-creation of the managing director’s car. He loved it. Everyone else hated it.

Skip forward twenty years, and we can see a strange revival of this sort of design, that includes the apparently unlikely participation of Apple. In iOS we see a shaky wooden bookcase to contain all your iBooks, a facsimile of some sort of notebook for Notes (complete with ripped edges to the pages) and a frankly bizarre green baize look for the Game Center. This approach to interface design is known as skeuomorphism, or making one thing resemble another. More simply expressed, it could be seen as the use of metaphor in design.

In 1991 the use of skeuomorphism was rife. Buttons lit up, had beveled edges and depressed when you clicked them. Backgrounds were made to look like paper, wood or glass. Aston Martin dashboards, however, were still a rarity. All of these devices were designed to familiarise users with a new world of interaction. Prior to the invention of ‘multimedia’ driven by the use of software such as Hypercard and Macromind Director, users interacted via command-line interfaces or the early versions of Windows and Mac OS. How should you assist people in navigating this new multi-dimensional world of content? The easiest way was to appropriate devices people were familiar with and use them in interface design.

The last twenty years have made us comfortable with multi-modal ways of navigating content and, for the born-digital generation, their ability to grasp seemingly-complex interfaces comes with a very short learning curve. Why then do software developers persist with this use of metaphor?

In 1997 we started to develop Turning the Pages – three-dimensional digital facsimiles of rare and valuable books. We would film a curator turning the pages of one of these books, use this footage as source material to develop a millimeter-accurate three-dimensional model of the original and then code it so that, when the user’s fingers swept across a touchscreen, the pages would turn. It was so realistic that staff at the British Library once found an elderly lady vainly swiping all the glass cases in the Treasures Gallery. She had spent too long using Turning the Pages and thought none of the books were real.

Why did we do this? Why not present the pages, folio by folio, flat on the screen? Our answer was that most books are about content. You buy them for the words on the page. Some books are about the artefact itself – the beautifully bound and the immaculately typeset. But some transcend the state of ‘book’ and become icons. There is no other Lindisfarne Gospels or Domesday Book; no substitutes are possible. One of the earliest books we worked on was the Sherborne Missal, which allegedly has more medieval miniature paintings than the whole National Gallery. People wanted to engage physically with this object, to pick it up, to turn the pages. However, because of its value and fragility they were not allowed to. Many very valuable books are now not even on display all the time. For six months a year they are ‘rested’ from light, stress on the spine or binding and sub-optimal atmospheric conditions. So our attempt at digital facsimiles is a deliberate response to the frustrated needs of museum and library visitors to experience the original. We have been asked many times whether our software should be used to display magazines or print books. I simply do not see the value in this. Continuing to use metaphor in this context seems a lazy approach to interface design when the folio ceases to have any meaning other than as a container for words that originated in a formless medium like Microsoft Word.

Why then does the use of skeuomorphism still exist in design? I believe it is because the wheel has turned full circle. We moved from a cartoonish use of metaphor, to a brutal exclusion of the decorative, the beautiful and the playful as espoused by usability experts such as Jakob Nielsen. The almost universal adoption of such principles spoke of a lack of confidence in developers for over a decade, but now, with a broader, more casual user base, increased confidence and an iterative approach to design that readily allows for change, developers have rediscovered their playful side and introduced fun into a visual world that had become too austere.

For most books, however, I think there remains a huge intellectual challenge to re-imagine their form for a digital age. The Kindle edition remains a largely slavish copy of the codex unbound. The first steps in a new direction have been taken by Apple with their iBooks Author software, allowing books to change and re-flow in portrait or landscape form, and for the ready inclusion of all sorts of media.

Yet of all the challengers for the re-imagining of the book interface, it might just be that we see Microsoft as the unlikely champions of a new approach. Their approach to the design of Windows 8 shows that they have been through a rigorous rethink of what an interface might be like, and the result is modern, pared down, triumphantly usable and surprisingly elegant. Were they to take this approach to books, perhaps in conjunction with their relationship with Nook, the results might give everyone a reason to denounce skeuomorphism for good.

Michael Stocking
August 2012

Michael Stocking is Managing Director, Armadillo Systems, London.

The Transforming Artist Books research network held a series of workshops in 2012 to discuss the potential of the digital to change the understanding, appreciation and care of artist books.