You’ve always been a bit suspicious of the trashcan on your computer’s imaginary desk top, and I’m here to tell you why.
I know what you’re thinking – I figured it out already, in real life no one keeps a trashcan on top of their desk. Yes, this adds to the tension. But the real reason is, I think, far more interesting.
The trashcan is an example of a skeuomorph – an intentional borrowing from a prior time that exists as a bridge to the past in order to make people feel comfortable and familiar.
There are skeuomorphs all around you. Your electric car has a decorative front grille that it doesn’t need, plastic pieces painted to resemble chrome of Detroit’s glory years, and sometimes even decorative wheel spokes to harken back to the horse-and-carriage days. Many pre-WWII American diners copied the form factor and appearance of rail dining cars, and the later diners aped those in turn. Some of those diners sport modern LED-powered blinking OPEN signs that mimic their neon forebearers. A fully electronic Las Vegas slot machine still comes with a long pull arm despite not needing any gears to turn, and the Nest thermostat has a rotary knob at least in part because so did thermostats before it.
It is exactly here, in the world of electronics and pixels, where you find the most skeuomorphs – that world simply moves too fast for our collective comfort. Some skeuomorphs tried too hard
and went too far
. Others were more helpful: Your camera app still makes 1970s shutter sounds, somewhere on the iPhone you can still swipe left to see a traditional stopwatch, and every online store has a shopping basket icon.