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On influencing design

April 22, 2013

Seth Godin recently wrote a blog post about what has instantly become my new favourite word – skeuomorph.

This element of digital design has been a niggle for a while, and knowing that this is actually a documented phenomena with arguments for and against has made me feel a lot less old-fashioned about my views.

George Basalla describes a skeuomorph as:

“an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material”

So, every single online ‘magazine’ that makes you use your mouse to ‘turn’ the pages is an example of obsolescence in design.  (As well as being really irritating – come on, I can’t be the only one…)

Familiarity, or what Seth describes in his article as ‘analogy’, is great.  It acts as a shortcut and helps us to understand and use things quicker.  It’s probably the basis for what we’d call ‘intuitive design’.

But it’s only great as long as it helps or improves the design, process or service.  This goes beyond simply getting buy in.  It’s about progress and making things better.

I don’t believe that design should always rip up the rule-book and start from scratch; influence is a wonderful thing.  Take for example the concept of biomimicry; the BBC reported a few days ago on a new plaster design which does less harm to burn victims because it is influenced by the way a parasite attaches itself.

The difference is that sort of influence takes the benefit of the source material, and works backwards to design something that preserves the benefit not the literal functionality. It uses the influence to create something that is useful and better.

Just taking the source material wholesale and using it without adaptation isn’t helpful. It’s plain lazy.

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