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Still, simplicity seems an insufficient explanation for good design. It’s easier for some machines than others to be simple, because they have fewer functions. The Palm, BlackBerry, and iPod have beautiful designs, but they do only a few simple things, and their beauty was less laboriously achieved than that of the MacBook Pro, which allows its users to perform a wonderful variety of difficult tasks.

The truth, perhaps, is that well-designed machines, whether they have few or many functions, should be minimally complicated. That is, they should have no more functions than is reasonable given their form; every function should be no more complicated than it needs to be; and the way each function works should be intuitively easy to understand. As Albert Einstein may have said, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

For example, a well-designed multifunction mobile device like the Helio Ocean (whose conception, design, and development David Talbot describes in “Soul of a New Mobile Machine”) is complicated insofar as it can be used for talking and messaging, gaming and Web searching, social and geo-computing. But all these functions are socially and contextually appropriate. Individual functions–say, e-mail–have been stripped of features that would feel frustratingly extraneous on a small screen; and anyone could straightaway use the device who had never seen it before.

By contrast, Word is badly designed not because it is complicated but because it is needlessly complicated.

Our design issue describes a few other characteristics of good technology design: it generally derives from collaboration among people in diverse fields, who are nonetheless subject to the focus and discipline of a tasteful despot like Steve Jobs; at its best, it is genuinely innovative, pushing manufacturers and engineers to develop new processes and techniques; and so on.

All of this matters because technology, which was at first the hobby of enthusiasts and then the property of professionals, is today used by billions in their daily lives. The further triumph of technology depends on good design. When a technology becomes a consumer product, says Bill Moggridge, a cofounder of Ideo and designer of the GRiD Compass, the first laptop computer (see Q&A), “it’s completely essential for success that the thing is enjoyable to use and easy to learn. It fails unless it is.”

Write to me and tell me what you think good design is at

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Credit: Mark Ostow

Tagged: Computing

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