A skeuomorph is “a design feature copied from a similar artifact in another material, even when not functionally necessary,” as explained in a recent a-word-a-day email forwarded by tmworld’s dad. (Although I think Wikipedia’s definition—”a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to structure that were necessary in the original”—is a little clearer.)

Examples of skeuomorphs include the shutter sound made by cameraphones to indicate a photo has been taken, even they do not have shutters, or the copper cladding on zinc pennies. Interesting stuff, but esoteric and seemingly isolated to a handful of cases.

And so I was astonished to encounter the above cup. It looks like its normal paper-and-plastic disposable to-go cup brethren (pictured at the top of this post) but it is in fact constructed wholly from plastic and is designed to be reusuable. The cup is a production of Capital Cups, which it as being a “spill-proof, reusable, recyclable, insulated beverage cup.” You can see examples of cups they’ve done for other clients; I think the Dunkin’ Donuts cup is especially skeuomorphical. 

Several of my friends were handed these cups by employees outside our local Au Bon Pain, a fast-casual bakery chain on the east coast, similar to Panera or Cosi, as part of some promotion, apparently. ABP is now selling these “travel mugs” for $2.99 in their stores, but if you have one you can buy coffee there at the refill price. My friends who have them, like them: they’re pretty good travel mugs and make it easy to take coffee or tea to-go from the dining halls. They say they’re not any more likely to buy coffee at ABP than they were before—especially because the dining halls always have fresh coffee.

But the cleverness of the cup isn’t in whether the person you hand it to becomes a regular ABP customer: The cleverness is that the people around that person will see them using an ABP cup. It looks like a to-go cup, so those around you would naturally assume that you’d just been to ABP. The cup is physical viral marketing. (I’m reminded somehow of Bloomingdale’s Medium Brown Bag Tote Bag, which is a $35 replica of the brown paper bags they give away in-store.)

I could think of one other example of a skeuomorph in physical advertising: Replica food. This is primarily a Japanese phenomenon, meant to be a sort of physical menu showing how food and drink will look, although my family owns a Café Du Monde Christmas ornament that is a replica of one of their famous beignets. The purposes of these two types of replica food are different, obviously—both are advertisements, but one is meant to compel purchases, while the other is meant to induce nostalgia—but the format is the same. (Ikea and other furniture stores often display feature fake TVs and DVD players; while skeuomorphs, these props are designed to be place-holders for their real counterparts, not to advertise those counterparts.)

For skeuomorphs in food, the question of reality is clear-cut: The real food is food you can eat. But here the question is more difficult: Which cup is real? The travel mug, because of how it presents itself, is more postmodern (and therefore less real): how things appear has trumped what things are. The irony is that the travel mug is better at being a cup than the “real” cup. It is stronger, more portable, reusable, and holds liquid longer. How valid are these claims? Is one cup more real than the other?