AHRC studentship: Agency of Design: activism, innovation, transformation
This research project focuses on the skeuomorph – an artefact, or design feature that evokes the function of its prototypical form through shared material and structural properties; often described as a ‘material metaphor’ (Knappett, 2005). Examples include the aural form of the camera “click” in mobile phones; ceramic objects that allude to those fashioned in metal; and the design of graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that familiarise us with new technology, such as Apple’s iBook application (2011) and the introduction of the electronic cigarette (2007). From the Greek skeuos ‘vessel, implement’, and morphē, ‘form’, the skeuomorph results from the nature of the material used or the method of working it (OED), thereby calling for a close examination of the crafting of this object-type in the translation of meaning from object to object; and from analog to digital.
This project addresses the need to formulate a ‘more thoroughly material approach’ (Shove, Watson, Hand, and Ingram, 2007) to the presence and application of the skeuomorph in the contemporary context. The skeuomorph presents rich possibilities for the study of craft, materiality, and virtuality, and specifically in relation to the transition from analog to digital in the contemporary context, yet its potential as a translational tool remains relatively misunderstood. The skeuomorph has been recently revived in discussions about the digital future, although it is often described as a transitional vestige of the three-dimensional that is rapidly losing its application as we become accustomed to the digital. Abbreviated in this way, the skeuomorph is seen as little more than a ‘flight of fancy’ (Brolin, 1985). This project seeks to examine this misconception in the contemporary context by undertaking a practice-oriented approach to the conception, design, and intentionality of the skeuomorph, and the processes that embed theory in practice. It will address the ways in which the skeuomorph has been theorised in relation to a broad spectrum of practices, and explore the materiality and making of the skeuomorph in different cognitive realms. In turn, this project seeks to critically examine skeuomorphism as a useful methodology when thinking about the digital future by interviewing designer-makers, who constantly renegotiate, interpret, and define object-types, and who embrace digital fabrication that mediates traditional making practices and the future of craft. This will set the context for the rationalisation and adoption of the skeuomorph as a future-thinking, meaning-making object-type.
This project is designed to excavate the space-time continuum that is embedded in the definition of skeuomorphism as an analytical framework for the study. As such, the notion of time provides the necessary through-route, from the ‘slow materiality’ of ceramics to the elasticity of plastic, and the seemingly unobtainable notion of materiality in digital design. I aim to explore the different ways in which meaning is crafted across different media, and more specifically, the viability of skeuomorphs as carriers of meaning in different design contexts. I will draw on case studies from within different disciplines in order to tease out their intricate and manifold nature, with a specific focus on contemporary practice in the UK and Europe.