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Posted in not good design, what really matters by hemmant jha on March 17, 2011

Whither detail?

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.

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