On Good Design
Your design issue made for enjoyable reading, although in your cover story on Helio’s Ocean phone, you fell under the spell of Helio’s marketing (“Soul of a New Mobile Machine,” May/June 2007). Helio sacrificed the defining feature of a desirable portable communication device–slimness–for the dubious benefit of rounded “pill” corners. There is good reason why size reduction has always been the holy grail of cell-phone manufacturers: smaller is better. But instead of working toward slimness, Helio painted Ocean black and put a silver girdle around it to make it look thin. This does not make it any easier to carry in a shirt or pant pocket. The Ocean is the antithesis of good design. Contrast that with Apple’s “Snow White” design language, as described in the same issue (“Different”). Apple’s decision to use perpendicular sides on its machines led to savings in plastic, packaging material, and shipping costs.
What’s more, Ocean is opening stores in the most expensive retail locations in the country and providing “spa treatments” for phones. This is a return to the excesses of the tech bubble. No wonder Helio has burned through much of its $440 million in funding and lost $192 million last year.
Redwood City, CA
In reading your design issue, I thought of a part of a verse about the Venus de Milo from “The Engineer’s Drinking Song”: “On seeing that she had no clothes, an engineer discoursed/’Why, the damn thing’s only concrete, and should be reinforced!’”
Design is often very mysterious to technologists. To some, it means a visual appeal that so far has resisted adequate explanation. To others, functionality, simplicity, use of materials, or cost tug at the heart. For many of us, straight lines and right angles form the foundation of design, from buildings to chips. The expanded possibilities for more-complex shapes often confuse the engineering soul.
Our appreciation of design rests in the fact that we’re equipped with senses that have evolved in nature, not in sheetrock boxes, on asphalt roadways, or in front of luminous screens. We best appreciate that which we can recognize with hand or eye, and for which we are prepared by our wiring. The woods around my home are “designed” just for me; some lousy Microsoft application obviously is not.
So I hope that you or I might see Venus as a woman, rather than a structurally inadequate and otherwise meaningless obstruction in an otherwise acceptable rectilinear box.
South Norwalk, CT