The Design Imperative

I’ve had a lot of discussion lately about the benefits and purpose of industrial design in objects we use everyday. Sometimes it’s not been obvious that this is the case, and other times (Apple vs the World) it’s pretty clear. So I figure I’ll outline some of my thoughts here. This is going to feature Apple among other companies and may trigger some partisan response. Turn away now if you can already feel your blood starting to boil. It’s been starting to really irk me lately that we’re expected to happily deal with an excessive level of economy. There are obviously certain levels of economic pressure but there’s also a social directive that suggests that the true measure of value is a function to monetary cost analysis. We shouldn’t pay more than we have to for anything that is considered non-essential unless we can convince ourselves that such frivolities derive a distinct and personal pleasure or aesthetic/stylistic statement. For me, good design isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics or cold ergonomics but they are clearly significant facets. Good design is evidence that the subtleties of a purpose have been considered and decisions and features have been considered for their practical value as well as their stylistic contribution and only then has cost for benefit been analysed with a more objective frame of reference as to how that benefit can really be weighed.

So lets begin with furniture. I recently made my first visit to an Ikea store, which was a harrowing experience both for the impersonal nature of the place but also the lack of value in the products sold. Ikea would have you believe that their trendy Scandinavian designers are paragons of the minimalist aesthetic and that Ikea furniture is a statement of conformity to an enviable lifestyle that is both fashionable and practical. In reality they are minimalist only in the sense that they have streamlined their production cost to sale price ratio. Their furniture is minimalist by virtue of using the minimum of construction material, and the least costly materials possible. In a phrase: it’s cheap crap. They seem to conveniently ignore the fat that a minimalist actually seeks the least excessive method to do a job exceptionally and not merely the least excessive method to do a job.

It is an exercise in maximisation, not without compromise but with clear standards of performance that should be met.

Nowhere is the issue quite so glaring as in the personal computing and electronics market. Look at any of the main desktop or laptop manufacturers and they all offer a glaringly similar range of cheap plastic boxes with the bare minimum specification for their intended use. Each design decision revolving around charging the customer as little as possible but still making the maximum possible profit per unit sold. There are a few exceptions in the high-performance end of the market, with Dell offering leather-accented laptops in a clear acknowledgement of the desire of the target demographic to make a statement regarding the style and fashionability of the objects they use every day. It is at least a step in the right direction.

This is possibly even more evident in the smartphone market right now (Apple mention alert). Almost every company has a real smartphone on the market and they are for the most part stunningly feature-rich. There are two companies that stand out for me with regards to product design: Blackberry and Apple. Both design their own hardware and software and both operate restricted/closed platforms. Their antithesis is the Android smartphone, which is open, arguably presents more features and operates a strong open-system ideal. You would think that there’s a lot to weigh up here but I don’t find the choice difficult at all. It all boils down to the design.

If I were to buy an Android phone I have the choice of some of the best features in a handset on the market. Awesome cameras, truly beautiful and vibrant screens and a hugely customisable operating system and user interface which are all admirable qualities in this type of device. Some of these features are double edged… my customisable interface with widgets is a significant battery drain, as is my pre-emptive multitasking capability. My interface has an over-granularised settings tree and is often loaded with bloatware and my app store is a target of all maner of nefarious naerdowells (along side some totally awesome and legitimate applications). I pay a high price, to my mind, for the freedoms I enjoy, but in all honesty will never really capitalise on. If I choose an iPhone I lose some of that freedom but little of the functionality and I pay more for my handset, but I gain a device that is constructed out of steel and glass, which is more durable and stylish (whether or not the style actually appeals to you). I have an operating system that presents me with all the benefits of multitasking without really multitasking and does not place heavy demands on my processor or battery and an interface which while being far less customisable does present an exceptional attention to detail. It is the least excessive method to do the job I require exceptionally. The alternative provides an exceptional method in some cases, the least excessive method in some cases, and excess in other features that do not assist me in any meaningful way at all.

The important consideration, I suppose, is that the design attempts to achieve the best compromise and balance in quality, style, usability and features. It is not as simple for me as getting the most features for the smallest price tag. Not economy for its own sake but elegance to achieve the right performance that has considered each factor but not been swayed unduly by any single one.