As designers know, good design has a lot to do with details. To the uninitiated, let it be known that God is in the details. Helvetica would be just another font if not for carefully resolved detail. And the straight six BMW M motor would be just another engine. And the suits of Jil Sander just a piece of clothing. And if detail is so critically important to a product, why is it being done away with?
There’s still detail everywhere you look – maybe it’s just not the right kind. Let’s visit the Apple iPad2. This svelte little powerhouse photographs well, works well, sells well. But so much has been stripped away from the design to absolutely, totally, completely pare it down that it is bloodless, practically devoid of character. It’s still very nice, and better than anything the competition will make anytime soon, but it is too simple.
What is too simple? In aesthetic terms, it has no hooks for our design gaze to linger, for our design instincts to latch onto. It’s nice, but it’s not charming, clever or terribly interesting. While there’s fabrication and assembly to admire, there’s not much to love, and certainly nothing to hold onto. It has a slippery shape that lends itself to flight – right from your fingers to the floor. In the quest to make a super slim machine, so much has been removed that basic functionality suffers. And when the very hands you’re trying to place these machines in are not given due consideration, that’s not good design.
Einstein got it right when he said “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
There are simple details that could save the day – nothing jarring, nothing sudden, something barely there and just indicative of due consideration. In the iPad2, they’re MIA, and that’s a problem. To us, that signals a shift in thinking – it places machine over user, image over functionality. It’s especially troubling because functionality and pleasure of use is what Apple was all about, starting with their very first products. Sexy looking design sells, but it is important to remember that people are pretty imperfect – compared to a machine, we are laid back, unfocussed dreamers. We have been known to drop things. We have soft hands and soft fingers, and that soft pudginess needs a little something to grab on – give us a bit of resistance, a lip, an edge, a furrow, a texture, something, anything!
Rather than asking us to change who we are, and necessitating change in our behaviour to match the needs of our devices, devices ought to conform to our needs. And designers ought to be able to anticipate those needs, and design and detail for them. That’s user focused design, and ultimately that’s good design.
There are examples of products that fulfill the need for grip. Above is the Ricoh GR1S – a classic camera, a street shooter that builds a perfect grip into its design. That one grip detail has been a constant presence over 30 years and has even survived the transition from film to digital.
Below is the Sony TA-E88B, a classic audio component. The volume knob is machined from the same metal as the iPad2, but is softly faceted to provide just the right amount of grip and tactile feedback – and as the knob is turned, we readily associate travel with the progressive change of volume. See it here on thevintageknob.org.
The Fixpencil 77 by Caran d’Ache fits beautifully and effortlessly in the hand. It is plain in appearance, compared to most other mechanical pencils – not due to the absence of detail, but through the skillful and subtle implementation of essential features. While other pencils emphasize the gripping area with knurled or grooved surfaces, machined finishes, little rubberized bunions and the like, the Fixpencil 77 simply incorporates a textured surface in that area – similar in color to the rest of the pencil. Visually and functionally, it provides grip when you need it, not when you don’t. See it here on Leadholder.com.
Ultimately, consider this post an impassioned plea to Apple. Dear Apple, you’ve done great so far, and you’re the bastion of good design in mass produced consumer products, but cracks are starting to show – take a vacation, have a stiff drink, do less, not more, but for God’s sake, keep it together.
God is in the details.
If one were to take Ludwig’s words to heart in everyday things, such as a good cup of espresso, the phrase would hold true if your espresso was of the single origin variety at Intelligentsia. If, however, your gaze wandered over to the small paper cup Intelligentsia uses, this little ditty would die on your lips.
The cup merely says Intelligentsi, with the graphic improperly scaled and designed for use on this size container. Small oversight? Maybe. In the context of providing the highest quality product and service, no detail is too small.
“If in the business of communications, ‘image is king,’ the essence of this image, the logo, is the jewel in its crown,” Paul Rand.
Innovation, Innovation everywhere.
To us, innovation means clear thinking. Sadly, in our profession, innovation as a word has lost much meaning. It has been so worn down through misuse and overuse, dyed and colored and beaten threadbare, that the word is barely able to communicate its original intent : the act of creating something new, be it thought, idea, product, technology.
It was with this baggage, and with trepidation [and anticipation], that I joined the discussion about Innovation hosted by the Chicago Tribune on November 09, 2010. To put things in perspective, while there’s nothing wrong with the appropriate use of the word, in the world of design it occupies the same exalted status as the word ‘interesting’ – which is the word designers use when nothing else comes to mind – at best, it is meaningless, at worst, a red flag.
And here’s why I feel this once significant word is in trouble : taken at face value, everybody’s an innovator these days, regardless of what they do and how well they do it. There’s innovation wherever you look – it’s impossible to take a stroll online without tripping all over it.
The list goes on and on. A bottle of really good scotch to anyone who can find a website of any major company that does not use this word.
Design companies no longer design, they innovate – in fact, the biggest design companies are the worst offenders. I say this with complete confidence because this is the industry I’m part of. When I worked at large corporations, I was their client, and as founding partner of a small design company, they are sometimes mine.
The discussion at the Tribune was not the appropriate venue for our thoughts on innovation, so here they are : we’re a product design / technology development company where we’re all proven innovators, with meaningful patents and products under our belts – innovation is central to what we do, and it is our reason for being. Which is why I can safely say that this word now carries as much meaning in general usage as the word ‘change’ does in politics. Everybody wants it, and apparently everybody delivers too.
Yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
The way we understand innovation has a lot to do with our time, this age we live in. Imagine Ford in 1903, forging the way for automobiles to be more affordable – it was fresh thinking, the first time things had been done that way. Innovation meant invention. A lot of essential stuff has already been invented in the last two hundred years – if inventiveness were to take a break, we could do just fine with what we currently know.
In this landscape, what means innovation? Not much. Because it’s a popular term, everyone wants in – pundits espouse it, clients demand it, designers must showcase it. Like anything overused, it’s also been diluted enough so it’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Most prominent and successful corporations [you may know them as big money, big budgets, big clients] in existence are not run by their founders, who were likely the original innovators that made them what they are today. Large companies are ‘managed’ by professional managers. And professional managers manage, they do not innovate. What happens when sales are down? Professional ‘innovators’ are called on. Tactically, this has proven to be a poor solution. Innovation consultants are not vested in a company – their efforts are better characterized as a cursory glance, not a long, hard look.
We all know this : at the end of the day, corporations [and individuals, leopards and lemmings] do what they know how to do. They tend not to operate too far from their comfort zone – they’re just like people, and not many of us are comfortable taking risks [soy vs. skim does not count]. When looking for design solutions, in order for us to make it possible for our clients to think different, we first learn to think like them. For us, that means thinking clearly, without bias, without buzzwords, without catchphrases.
Uncolored thinking. That’s innovation, step 1. And it’s something we can all do, in whatever we do. Would you agree?
User Proof | Making Technology Accessible. Or not.
In a previous article, we touched upon this phenomenon : the great divide which has occured between us and the devices we use. And these are not professional devices with limited appeal – these are mostly everyday electronic devices such as phones and cameras [in many cases combined] that we use daily, for functions far beyond simple vocal communication. Modern multifunction electronic devices are indispensable for our lives in the modern world – we use them to live, learn, work, play.
At the same time as our dependence on these devices grows, we know less and less about how these devices actually work. With the passage of time, it is likely that we will know even less. Does this matter? Should one even be concerned about this divide? After all, since time immemorial, there have always been experts who have been responsible for keeping complex devices in good working order. What concerns us is that in addition to our not knowing, it seems that many of the people who sell us these devices [retail outlets and customer support for consumer electronics, phones, home appliances] do not know too much more themselves. One notices this when tech support often involves little more than the reading back of instructions from a computer display. The standard operating procedure for manufacturers is to issue RA numbers and FEDEX shipping labels for devices to be exchanged, not repaired. Devices are generally so complex and are put together in such ways that they cannot be disassembled or repaired in a way that makes sense financially [associated environmental issues 1, 2, 3].
With such inbuilt opacity, how then can one expect to really connect with a device when it is designed to be replaced at the first sign of trouble, not tended to? And if we cannot establish a meaningful connection with the devices so indispensible to our lives, how could we possibly be expected to care for them or treat them well? How could they be anything but disposable?
And if they are so disposable, how could they become a companion – like a diary or a wallet? How might one humanize technology? Bright colors and smiley faces will not do, neither will floral motifs and gender specific superficialities.
I still use fountain pens to write with – I’ve had the same one now for eight years. I know how it writes and the quality of the lines it will lay down when used. I know what inks work well with it, I know how it might behave on flights, when it might clog or dry out. I know how to disassemble it, but that’s usually not necessary with a good overnight soak every few months. I know the device quite well, in about the same way as I know my skin and my hands. A hundred years ago, practically everyone could fix a broken horse-drawn carriage or farm implements. I remember cleaning out the carbuerettor on our Fiat in the 70s with my father – removing it from the block, checking the nozzles and looking for dirt that might have gotten in somewhere. It was very satisfying feeling to hear a car run smoothly and knowing that I’d had someting to do with it.
All manner of enthusiasts seem to take pride in working on / with their equipment. Audiophiles in particular like working on devices like turntables and tube amps. Setting the VTA, rake angle, antiskating, counterweights and loading to extract the last final bit of magic from the groove – is this typical enthusiast behavior? I’d say it is. Others categorize it as being un-necessary, perhaps as fetishism. The truth is that we’re all endowed with various senses and are programmed to use things, to touch, to feel, to smell and taste. The popularity of LV bags on view everywhere in Tokyo and the popularity of butter soft leather and shiny wood accents within every Lexus in suburbia bears this out.
Cooks take particular pleasure in using the right kinds of knives, the right cast iron pans, the right ingredients. The right kind of deep fryer for whole turkeys is often the topic of intense debate around a particular time of year.
There are clearly many, many more examples of objects and devices that people still feel a strong, emotionallty charged connection with. And not many of these are constant companions, even, unless used professionally. What, then, ails modern electronics?
Clearly, a carburetor, a carriage, a fountain pen, a cast iron pan – none of these are electronic devices [unless examined at the sub-molecular level] – they are mechanical devices. Mechanical devices are generally not too opaque or intimidating, because most such devices seem to be able to tell you what state they’re in. When a pan rusts, there’s no BSoD. As long as devices are able to communicate effectively with their users, the level of staisfaction we derive from owning them and using them will rise, as will the level of care we use them with. Ultimately, we will derive more satisfaction from them.
When my Macbook Pro acts up, the fine people at Apple provide excellent service. But what happens behind the smiling public presence? One will never know, nor does one apparently want to or need to. I’ve had optical drives replaced twice on my machine in 8 months. What went wrong with them – could I have done something to keep them alive? I will never know because the person I get to ask usually does not know – it is more economical in the short term to replace the drive and make way for the next customer than it is to educate the consumer. After my departure, was the recalcitrant optical drive thrown to wolves or sentenced to five years’ hard labour?
A potentially serious consequence of ignorance, either self-inflicted or imposed, is the misuse of one’s own hardware and software for revenue generation by others, along with the accompanying intrusion on privacy. Take this for example : emotion recognition using one’s webcam. All modern laptops and portable computing devices have inbuilt cameras [I probably have the only modern phone without one] – how many of us know how to turn them off completely? Apparently, they’re controlled at the OS level and difficult to tamper with. It’s probably just as difficult to know whether they’ve not been tampered with. When we’re not using them, the assumption is that they’re off. Remember the last time you got an online offer for $5 off your next purchase? There was a block of dense legal text with an ‘I Accept’ button – the gateway to the discount. Did you read it all? It would take nothing for someone to slip in a clause, completely unobserved, giving an organization the authority to observe you through your own webcam the next time you surf the web or shop.
Free Mocha Frapuccino for you, sir? Yes? Just sign here, intitial here – or just look into this camera and smile.
Separated at birth : Honda Insight 2010, Toyota Prius 2004-2010
With the introduction of the 2010 Honda Insight, the aesthetic of the everyday hybrid automobile has been firmly established : if it has four doors, a hatchback, reasonable aerodynamics and low fuel consumption, it must strongly resemble a Toyota Prius.
So visually similar is the new Insight to the Prius that one wonders if Honda intends to fool people into buying one of their hybrids. While this blog is generally intolerant of bad design, we try and shy away from open criticism – however, the shameless copying of a successful form is not something one can or should condone. Imitation is imitation [and thievery - of ideas and revenue], not the sincerest form of flattery.
The overall profile, the taper of the windows, the rear lights, the small piece of rear windshield below the tail, down to the small bulge on which the logo of the manufacturer is placed – all are strikingly similar. Unless Honda and Toyota have merged of late or have started to share tooling and body panels, or maybe a common design philosophy, one simply cannot understand the reason for this strange similarity.
It is unfortunate that a major manufacturer, quite different from its primary competitor in many ways, has chosen this rather subversive route to gain marketshare for it’s product. Honda is generally recognized as being a manufacturer of repute – not least for being first off the block [in the US] with the slightly odd but quite innovative Insight hybrid back in 1999. We see no reason why such a company could not produce an automobile that did not have to rest on the laurels of its closest competitor.
Why, Honda? Whydyadoit?