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A tale of three skeuomorphs

Shift Happens book updates
A tale of three skeuomorphs
By Shift Happens book updates • Issue #21 • View online

The 1983 Apple Lisa wastebasket – the first trashcan in GUI history
The 1983 Apple Lisa wastebasket – the first trashcan in GUI history
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. 
A modern hybrid rotary dial/push button phone, and a 1980s computerized Rolodex where you still rotated a knob to get to your contacts
A modern hybrid rotary dial/push button phone, and a 1980s computerized Rolodex where you still rotated a knob to get to your contacts
Skeuomorphs can be helpful, accelerating progress by easing in new technology. But left unchecked, they can also stunt it. The warm comfort of the previous era becomes nostalgia’s nostalgia, serving no other purpose than gatekeeping the future.
The 3½" floppy disk as a save button in the newest Office wasn’t a design decision as much as design inaction. (It made perfect sense when it appeared, but wasn’t ever updated.) You could make the same argument for the handset icon for your voice call app. The sophisticated page-turning animation on the early iPads was widely ridiculed as the least important part of “paperness,” and Craig Mod once pointed out that on the same device, Apple’s much-hyped Newsstand was a grotesque calque of the analogue newsstand – the entire point of the original was to allow to look at glorious covers, which the new version bastardized into but a few coarse pixels. Perhaps we should’ve ripped off the bandaid right there and then.
My favourite example in that genre might be the calculator on your computer, its form factor frozen in 1970s, down to onscreen buttons that are slower and more cumbersome than the keys on the keyboard your fingers are already on top of. Its operation is so primitive – only one number at a time, only one slot for memory – it borders on parody. Grab any modern calculator app and you’ll see how much easier it is to understand and engage with math if you’re not beholden to old conventions.
And right next to that calculator, there’s the trashcan. 
The premise was pretty fantastic. During the 1970s and early 1980s, people at Xerox Parc and Apple wanted to simplify computers to make them more palatable for people who never used computers before. On the hardware side, that meant mice and nice graphical displays. And what was shown on those displays – a pixelated representation of their offices – made perfect sense to office workers meant to use them: papers that you could drag to a printer, a clipboard to keep snippets of text, and a little calculator resembling the one on their desk. And, in the corner, a trashcan they could use to get rid of unwanted documents.
The new idea – known as “the desktop metaphor” – felt visible and tangible. Dragging something to a trashcan was far more natural than typing DEL FILE.TXT. But, more importantly, a file in a trashcan could be retrieved back. This was a filesystem equivalent of Undo introduced at around the same time, too; a beautiful safety hatch that helped you worry about computers less.
All of this worked. And a few years later, in System 4, the trashcan borrowed even more from the real world – its representation would bulge a bit whenever it had files inside. It seemed like a great, useful idea. But, without anyone noticing, it made the trashcan so much worse.
You see, in the real world, a trashcan filled with old stuff is an unwelcome state. Organic trash rots and smells. Office trashcan filled with too much crap won’t make you any friends. An overflowing trash bin on the street is a sign of failed infrastructure.
But none of this applies to computers. It’s quite the opposite. The more stuff you have in your trash, the more useful it is. The more you neglect it, the further back in time you’ll be able to get to recover files you thought long gone.
Having another icon representing a filled trashcan on your screen makes you instinctively want to empty it (which often comes with a nice rewarding sound, too). But every time you do this, you remove your own safety hatch.
The designers at Apple never realized this. What’s even worse, their approach was copied by pretty much every other graphical operating system:
How powerful can the habit of cleaning the virtual trashcan be? I’ve done so instinctively at least twice while writing this section. Perhaps this here is skeuomorphism gone a bit too far.
The bulging trashcan is my favourite example of the tricky nature of skeuomorphs. There are skeuomorph stories in the book, of course: early Caps Lock keys physically depressing to mimic typewriters, a Typewriter key on a young word processor. Even here, I once wrote about in-betweeners.
But these days, I also wonder about visual skeuomorphism. See, many typewriter books look like this:
I don’t like this – excessive texturing, bad contrast, multiple faux typewriter fonts. Those feel to me like bad skeuomorphs, cargo culting rather than a careful nod to the past. In a book about typewriters, you don’t have to put me inside one.
And yet, I still want some of that good nostalgia, I want to convey a certain amount of care, and I want a small handshake with a few people who’ll recognize the effort.
The best idea I had? To use a font named Gorton Normal.
If you’re a person of a certain age, you have typed on a keyboard using Gorton Normal. BBC computers, Compaq portables, DEC and TeleVideo terminals, CDC supercomputers, many PC clones, and Apple II all chose it. IBM eventually switched to Helvetica, but before that, they also borrowed a version of Gorton’s typeface. Hell, Gorton Normal even made it to the Moon aboard Apollo 11 and its famous DSKY keyboard.
You don’t have to be a middle-aged typist to have touched Gorton Normal, either. You can still buy key caps with that font today. Some letterforms have been updated and some of the quirks filed away – the Q no longer has a weird tail, the 3 and 7 dropped their sharp angles, and the 8 no longer looks asymmetrical – but it’s still Gorton.
If there ever was a keyboard font, this was it. As it was never meant for extended reading, I thought I could use it for page numbers and chapter titles. Alas, there was a problem: Gorton Normal exists only on engravers and CNC machines made by Gorton.
This explains the mechanical awkwardness and the singular stroke width. This also explains why you’re likely to have seen Gorton in a few other places, like I did in San Francisco just in the last month:
There was only one option. I needed to digitize Gorton Normal and recreate it in a modern format I could use in the book. And so, I photographed a fresh set of keys at home, and spent a lot of time at the Living Computers Museum in Seattle pretending my camera lens was my finger:
And then I drew them all, one by one – first in Figma, and then in specialized font software:
Reviving Gorton Normal on the road
Reviving Gorton Normal on the road
The work’s not done yet. I’m not a professional type designer, and despite the simplified nature of Gorton – and skipping lowercase altogether – some of the shapes are pretty complicated. But it’s fun to see it in my limited use already: the awkwardness of some of the distinctive digits, the pound sign every BBC computer user had nightmares about, the five versions of zero I found throughout ages.
(I even rewrote one chapter title to better showcase the lopsided ampersand.)
What’s even more remarkable was that Gorton Normal wasn’t made, as I suspected, some time in the 1950s or 1960s. No, the evidence points to the font being as old as 1902, and possibly even older.
This creates some pressure – I am now possibly reviving a 19th-century typeface – but it’s also pretty cool. Gorton Normal was there almost as early as typewriters, watching them grow, just waiting for the right moment to jump onto their keyboards. It’s a typeface with surprising longevity, mechanical and somewhat ugly in nature, but with a surprising warmth coming through all the stories of its use.
This is how I know it’ll be a perfect fit – replace “typeface” with “keyboard” above, and you just described my goal for the entire book.
Gorton Normal, not yet named that in 1902
Gorton Normal, not yet named that in 1902
What‘s going on with the book
Black bars represent progress in the last two months
Black bars represent progress in the last two months
I’m done with another batch of editing, and the editor is now taking a stab at the entire book. There shouldn’t (hopefully) be much more needed after that.
The prototype came, too, and it’s beautiful. The main difference is visible if you compare it this way with a previous iteration:
It’s the photos! Pretty much all of them are here, and they look great. I’m much more happy than I expected. I reviewed the whole visual side with a friend and there are still a dozens of details needing fixing, but the basic look and feel is solid.
Next steps for me: figuring out the printing details! This is a bit scary since I still don’t know much about it. But I have many wonderful people who will help me out.
A big thank you this time to…
Speaking of! Thank you to Erin McKean who’s one of the book readers (and her excitement around words is palpable), and Mike Sall who’s helped so much in shaping the visual nature of the book.
But first and foremost I wanted to extend infinite thank you to everyone at the aforementioned Living Computers Museum in Seattle, which just shut down. People there – Aaron Alcorn, Aaron Peplowski, Cynde Moya, Dorian Bowen, and Robert Schmuck – helped me (and the book) out with their endless encouragement and generosity. I’m genuinely sorry to hear the news.
What am I typing this issue on?
I didn’t venture out to buy this keyboard in order to provide Topical Content, although this is an “infection control keyboard” meant to be used in medical facilities, sporting a hospital-friendly colour, a blinking light that will tell you when it needs to be cleaned, and a COVID-19 strategy.
No, it was the skeuomorphs on the surface that fascinated me. I’ve never seen a keyboard pretend so hard. It seemed galling – brazen, even. Let’s print three-dimensional keys on top of a flat membrane keyboard, and maybe people won’t notice, I imagined its creators saying.
But then the keyboard came, complete with a little mousepad reminding you of the proper keyboard cleaning procedure. I started typing on it, and what happened stopped me in my tracks.
This wasn’t a flat membrane keyboard like Atari 400 or your microwave. The keys actually depressed – there were some mechanisms hidden inside that made it feel like… I don’t know exactly. It was almost like a keyboard in reverse, with keys going in instead of sticking out. 
I never typed on something that felt this way. It took more time than I’m willing to admit to figure out what this contraption really was – a protective rubber mat on top of a… pretty regular keyboard. That mat could, and often needed, to be removed for cleaning.
I realized that this skeuomorph has bested me. If Apple’s trashcan was a bad skeuomorph looking good, here we had the exact opposite. This keyboard was more thoughtful than I had imagined, and the surprises kept coming: When I turned off the light in my lightbox, I learned that it even came with a unique form of backlighting.
There was one more surprise: the name of its maker, Advanced Input Devices. It sounded familiar. I realized that this was one of the companies famous in the 1980s, part of the “Keyboard Valley” between Idaho and Washington. We’ve met it once before. Around the same time Apple was thinking of first trashcans, Advanced Input Devices created a keyboard for IBM PCjr, one of the most reviled keyboards.
It’s perhaps a tiny comeback story, and perhaps a sign that the right skeuomorph can bring you good luck. Let’s just hope Gorton Normal will bring some for me.
Marcin
This was newsletter №21 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents
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