I’m reading a book called Sketching User Experiences, which is an interesting dialogue on the philosophy of design, filled with many practical real-world examples. The author, Bill Buxton, has been a part of or exposed to many fascinating design projects over the years that he details in his book.
I want to post a quote by Steve Jobs about design from Buxton’s book:
Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. To design something really well, you have to ‘get it.’ You have to really grok [understand] what it’s all about.
I feel like a broken record saying this on my blog, but it’s worth repeating, particularly for new readers to this blog. Design is the science of elegant functionality, which is why having a process for design development is so important. Just like research or development—design is also a well defined process.
Jobs’ quote reminds me of what was told to me recently by a friend who is a researcher at Apple’s top competitor. He complained that, more and more frequently on projects, executives at his company were instructing him and his colleagues to, “make it like the iPod—you know, simple and cool.” I’ve heard this complaint elsewhere and it’s obvious that the iPod has become the sole definition of design in many people’s eyes—some Platonic design ideal that everyone is striving to reproduce.
Also because of the iPod, simplicity has become the buzzword of the year, but this is also a misplaced ideal. I hesitate to discuss this, because simplicity has been a mantra of mine since the ‘90s given the unique needs of hearing aid users (my field) and my general philosophy that products should be intuitive. The design success of the iPod is a result of more than just simplicity, just like the business success of the iPod is a result of more than just its design. Perhaps a better buzzword for the future is intuitiveness, from which simplicity is one solution.
My friend’s dilemma was that this demand to mimic the iPod restricted his creativity to the design language of the iPod—he couldn’t treat each project on its own terms with its unique challenges. There’s no surer way to squelch innovation than to tell someone tasked with creative thinking to mimic someone else’s creation. Not only that, the requirements that produced the iPod design may have nothing to do with the design requirements of these other products. The relationship between a product, its use and its user may require a design solution completely different to that of an iPod, but that design solution can still be brilliantly elegant and functional.
While the iPod is currently an icon of design and probably the most written about product with respect to design, I suspect that it may soon become anathema to designers if executives continue to force their design teams to mimic the iPod style. Soon there will be a growing league of ipodoclasts looking to tear down the iPod and force their own design language to the forefront of consumer product design.
What’s ironic is that companies should actually be trying to mimic Apple’s/Ives’ approach to design and learning from his process of iteration and innovation rather than mimicking the product of its/his process. Until they do (and maybe even if they do), Apple will maintain its design lead. Perhaps the iPhone, another product of Jonathan Ives design team at Apple, will be the product to demonstrate that design success can result from intuitiveness rather than simplicity, at which point I suppose executives will be clamoring for products to be made like the iPhone—you know, intuitive and cool.