Letter from the Editor

On Beautiful Machines

Well-designed technologies are minimally complicated.

  • This letter appeared in the May/June 2007 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • May 1, 2007

I am writing this column on my new 17-inch Apple ­MacBook Pro–and oh, man, it’s a beautiful machine.

Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief and Publisher

I have owned this model of computer before. I used my old MacBook Pro until the other day; but sadly, foreign travel dented its aluminum casing, dulled all its surfaces with dust and oil, and reduced its screen to flickering fog–and as it ceased to be new, I became insensible to its virtues. But this machine is box-fresh, and novelty has rekindled my crush. (You can see my actual laptop on this page of the photo essay, “Objects of Desire”, where its design is praised as iconic.)

I love my MacBook Pro because its broad but slim body seems luxuriously solid yet also gracefully light. I love how the resistance subtly increases when I press a key, flattering my touch. I love the crisp definition of the graphics on its large, luminous screen. Most of all, I love how all my Macintosh software shares an elegant iconography and navigation scheme, and how all my Apple hardware works together uncomplainingly. The 17-inch MacBook Pro, in the famous phrase of Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder and chief executive, is “insanely great.”

The software application I am using is Microsoft Word. It is not beautiful. Above this document is a toolbar with more than 30 icons, many of whose meanings escape me. Above the toolbar are 12 pull-down menus, each with countless functions, and although I have been using Word as my principal professional tool for more than 13 years, I still don’t know which functions can be found in which menus, because there are too many functions, arranged with too little logic. Everywhere, there are pullulating features, obscure jargon, and confusing organization.

Multimedia

What makes a machine beautiful? In this issue of Technology Review, we ask what makes for good industrial and interactive design in technology products. Editing these stories, and thinking about artifacts as different as the MacBook Pro and Word, has suggested some tentative answers to me.

One common answer is that technology design should be simple. Certainly, thoughtful designers disdain “feature bloat,” in which business managers add more and more features to products in order to appeal to more markets. In “Different”, Daniel Turner’s account of why Apple’s products are so reliably well designed, Don ­Norman, who was vice president of advanced technology at Apple, says feature bloat is difficult to resist: “The hardest part of design … is keeping features out.” But keeping it simple can create the Palm, the BlackBerry, or the iPod.

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 jason.pontin@technologyreview.com

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