Complex Made Beautiful

08 Apr 2007|Lori Hobson

Inspirations pass. What stirred us bolt upright in bed yesterday doesn’t even get us out of the hammock today. So it’s not a surprise that we are witnessing the end of a theme that has been a social cause, design mantra, and political crutch for over a decade. “Simplicity” is on the decline. It started making its way to the door a while ago, and like a busy host at our own intellectual party, we hadn’t noticed that our stylish guest had decided to slip out. From here on, “making things simple” as a mission will be pursued primarily by the people who are driving the idea into decline or those who take a while to catch on. (Hint: usually those are the same group.)

Which leaves the Masters of Innovation, or at least me and my coffee klatch, compelled to consider what is next.

By now you may be shaking your head in disbelief, but if I told you that the future – the next muse that will tickle our minds and stir our souls – has made a cameo appearance at my house, would you try to sneak a peek through the window?

I have seen the Apple iPhone. They are not released, but one of them lives where I live.

What I saw is a hint of what is to come. The antidote for dumbing things down. The means for organizing the disparate and embracing the wild wooly reality of the connected world. A metaphor for communications that don’t gloss over the facts. Not to give Apple too much credit – there are other examples I could highlight – but this product embodies a new approach to the complicated that doesn’t balk at detail.

To sum it up: it’s made the complex engaging, even beautiful.

“Simplicity” has been the mantra chanted in the halls of the culturally savvy ever since the Palm Pilot demonstrated it as a way to get ordinary people to buy breakthrough technology. “Feature specific versus feature rich” was how one design manager used to articulate the idea. But we have come to realize that our longing for simplicity in our lives is, well, not that simple.

Things distilled into very simplistic terms today have become suspect. Yes, simplicity gave us the Blackberry, which did mobile email very well. But it also gave us the need for three different feature-specific set-top boxes just to watch TV. It gave us “fave five” calling plans. But it also gave us business models from fairyland, eventually pushing us to the brink of Sarbanes-Oxley. We have learned that simple looking objects can be inordinately difficult to operate; take, for example, the iDrive from BMW. While complex-looking things might be easy to use, e.g., the Treo, whose less-than-enduring engineering aesthetic can scare off even a moderate tech adopter. From product design and brand communication, to issues as broad as Bush addressing the Iraq war, when simplicity shows up today, we all raise an eyebrow of suspicion.

Beautifully considered solutions, on the other hand, are making us smile and want more. Beautiful is when the book is so well written that you can’t wait for the sequel. When a service is so delightful that you want to try each menu item. When you relish peeling back the layers of the object, media piece, or witticism to discover more and more intricacy. It’s the proof that mathematicians call “elegant,” the one which solves the difficult problem with a graceful answer that does not assume away the complexity.

By “beautiful,” I don’t mean “pretty” but I don’t exclude it either. Even ornamental and decorative designs are sneaking into many arenas. Pick up a fashion magazine and only Jil Sander seems still to be carrying the banner of the clean and unadorned. Elsewhere we see complex, intricate wardrobes – layers of varied materials, puffed sleeves, ruffled collars, and intricate weaves. The pattern extends to art, where we see more playfulness, and less stark dreadfulness, emerging. (Check out Ryan McGinness, an artist that my young talented design friend Nichole turned me on to.)

Beautiful gives us An Inconvenient Truth to grasp the impact of global warming. Say good bye to fossil-fuel-fed denial. It gives us The Daily Show to tune into the news, both the stated events and the more subtle sidebars. It gives us the promise of GPS systems without inane interfaces. (Let’s hope Dash delivers.) And it gives us Cisco and HP campaigning to have a personal connection with human beings instead of rote discussions with purchasing functions.

This new beauty informs while it pleases. Makes us invest to uncover something worth exploration. It’s the MINI campaign compared to GM’s “Our Country, Our Truck!”

So I have glimpsed of the most anticipated product in Silicon Valley since John Doerr over-hyped the “Ginger.” But not only will this product sell 10,000 times more units than the Segway scooter, it is beautiful. While I am not allowed to touch it or look at the interface (other than what you can see from the MacWorld announcement), I can say without doubt that this is a different approach than what most manufacturers are currently pursuing. It’s a difference that will be lost on many. They’ll try to emulate the aesthetic and forget about its integration with the UI, the brand position, the as-yet-to-be-displayed-but-inevitably-amazing packaging, the retail treatment – you get the idea. They’ll totally ignore the advertising that makes us want to pick up the phone and say “hello.” They’ll say Apple figured out how to make it simple because the iPhone’s industrial design screams minimalism, but its real virtue is in its ability to handle complexity in a way we will adore.

This blog is dedicated to Cal Seid and Ed Kirk, who both could make the complex beautiful.

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