Square Peg in a Round Hole - geograph.org.uk -...
Square Peg in a Round Hole - geograph.org.uk - 1244305 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will explain what skeuomorphism is in a minute, but first an anecdote.

In the mid-1990s, I was invited to a presentation of the new digital platform of the Chicago Tribune. It was a pretty slick presentation. The content of the print newspaper had been moved to the Web. Articles were linked to one another; you could search across the entire newspaper. The display did not differ markedly from the print publication, though there was greater flexibility, as the digital medium makes possible. And along the top and on the sides were advertisements, looking very much like the kinds of ads you would find in the print edition that was tossed on your doorstep every morning. But these ads did not merely display information about the advertiser; you could click on the ads and be taken to the advertiser’s Web site. All the properties of the print edition plus more: print-plus.

I knew then that the Tribune was doomed. I did not know then, nor do I know now, what the future of newspapers looks like, but certainly it would not look like the print Chicago Tribune, nor was there much chance that the primary business model of newspapers — aggregate an audience and sell that audience to advertisers — would survive the delocalizing properties of the Internet — its most famous instantiation, after all, is called the World Wide Web. The Tribune was doomed not because the people working there were not bright — in fact, they were exceedingly bright and had, like Bob Dylan’s Miss Lonely, gone to the finest schools — but because their imagination of a new thing was based on an old thing. They were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Skeuomorphism, originally a term from archaeology, is type of ornamentation where the design or look of the object helps the user to understand the function of the device or tool. I am myself more interested in the term as a metaphor for something new that has the shape or form of something old. In scholarly communications, the PDF is the supreme skeuomorph — an exact replica of the printed page rendered for computer screens, at least screens large enough to display it (mobile devices need not apply). In e-books we have the skeuomorphism of page numbers. Page numbers make sense for print; they are handy navigational tools.  But there are no “pages” in an e-book. Different navigational tools have to be invented, tools that are native to the digital environment. Skeuomorphisms can be helpful. Consider,  for example, the image of an old-fashioned bookshelf with bound hardcover books on it, which graces the primary screen of the Apple iBookstore. Viewers recognize that image and know that the books on that virtual shelf represent digital files that can be accessed from any Apple device.

Metaphorically, the management of the Tribune was guilty of first-degree skeuomorphism by thinking that their business model would migrate from print to digital, but most often things are called skeuomorphs when they concern product development. The challenge is a creative one —  what are the properties of a new medium and what kind of new products or services can we come up with that seem at home in that new medium, so comfortable that skeuomorphs are not necessary?

Unfortunately, this is not the kind of question that can be designed by a committee.  It was, after all, a committee that cooked up the digital edition of the Chicago Tribune. To work in a new medium, you need new minds.

I first heard the term “skeuomorph” applied to the world of publishing, e-books in particular, by Ron Martinez, who is exploring the post-skeuomorphic world at Aerbook, but the case is perhaps well made by two recent outstanding films, which caused me to think about what it would mean to create digital native ebooks. First there is The Artist, which somehow or other managed to win the Academy Award for Best Picture this year.  This is a brilliant film, a great work of art. It teaches us about skeuomorphism by working with an unexpected medium, that of the silent movie. The deft handling of the conventions of silent cinema is moving, and even moreso as everyone in the audience knows that the ability to record sound was available to the director. The film is a study of a new medium, a medium that is an imitation of an old medium, and perhaps a sly cultural allegory of the difficulties of a French production team working in an industry dominated by English-language Hollywood.  Or perhaps the allegory is political.

The second film is Wim Wenders’ Pina, a tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch.  For those unfamiliar with Wenders, please stop reading now and see the marvelous The American Friend or the breathtakingly beautiful Wings of Desire.  Pina, on the other hand, is a documentary, but it has one twist:  it is 3-D.  It is not the first 3-D movie by a long shot, but no other 3-D movie was ever filmed with the quiet authority of Wenders. While there is one early scene in which the dancers walk directly toward the camera, reminding us that the film is indeed in 3-D, most of the time the use of 3-D seems natural. Wenders understands this new medium and renders his work without straining. It is a tour de force.  It is difficult for me to imagine any film about dance from here on that will not be in 3-D, paying quiet tribute to Wenders’ mastery.

And that is the problem with getting beyond skeuomorphism in any medium, including publishing. You need a Michel Hazanavicius, the director of The Artist, or a Wim Wenders.  All the discipline and training of the Chicago Tribune could not give them that, the truly creative individual who understands the properties of the new digital media on an emotional level.  To make something new you have to be someone new.

Those of us working today in scholarly communications are surrounded by skeuomorphs on one side, truly new things on the other. We have the skeuomorph of Green open access, which attempts to take the materials of traditional publishing and bang it into a new form through self-archiving, but then we have the truly innovative PLoS ONE, which has no obvious or immediate forebear.  (The flagship journals of the Public Library of Science, on the other hand, are full-blooded skeumorphisms, copying traditional publishing exactly and then adding a dash of open access.)  We have scholars who print out articles before reading them, but we also have a growing number of APIs, data-mining services, and Big Data. The world is not one way or the other, at least not yet.

What is missing, though, is an industry-wide commitment to think about new media as new media. Rather than contrast and compare it to print, we could be thinking about digital media’s unique properties.  We should not be replacing print collections with digital ones; we should be superseding them.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


6 Thoughts on "Skeuomorphic Publishing: How to Fit a Square Peg Into a Round Hole"

I think Robert Darnton was moving in this direction with his now classic article “The New Age of the Book” in the March 1999 issue of the New York Review of Books, where he applied an idea borrowed from Cornell librarian Ross Atkinson to elaborate a vision of a new kind of multidimensional, multilayered scholarly work that would fully take advantage of the capabilities of the new technology–a vision that was partly implemented in the Gutenberg-e and ACLS Humanities E-Book projects sponsored by the Mellon Foundation.

I really don’t see any relationship between what I wrote about and Darnton’s essay. Darnton seems to me to look backward even when he says he is looking forward.

I completely agree with your last sentence, while still enjoying my print books. But right now our society is in the midst of a painful transition — the couple of generations still with us, who still use and love their TVs, telephone books, human bank tellers, land lines, etc., are experiencing their own Digital Divide: they don’t understand how to use cell phones or computers or even ATM cards.
–Those of us on the younger edge of the Boomers have learned how to use these, but most of the millions of folks older than we are have not or cannot. As is usual when societal sea changes arrive, we will/should still run parallel systems for a couple of decades more.
–Those on the cutting edge of technology shouldn’t have to think about this, and just keep innovating. But others of us will need to think about how best to keep “both systems” running for a while.

Agree with this. In working in both software engineering and science, I noticed that software development projects run off digital systems like GitHub no longer bear much resemblence to paper documentation. Code display and versioning, issue tracking, wikis, and other tools all come to gether to provide continuous real-time updating on the state of a project. This is the inspiration for my team’s approach to organizing human health data for greater collaboration and faster research progress. http://wp.me/p2faIU-y

“Consider, for example, the image of an old-fashioned bookshelf… which graces the primary screen of the Apple iBookstore. Viewers recognize that image and know that the books on that virtual shelf represent digital files that can be accessed from any Apple device”.

Well viewers may *think* that the digital files can be accessed from any Apple device, but that’s not the case!

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