Rewriting Life

Two Words on Design

The goal of simplicity is anything but easy to achieve.

If you turn on your TV today, you may see a commercial for ­Target in which the word “DESIGN,” big and bold, flashes on a screen filled with oddly dressed people running around. “Is this a kind of madness?” you might ask yourself. But as the vibrant imagery on the TV ­settles in your mind, you are forced to conclude, “Ah, this is … design.”
If you are a trained technologist, you will quickly shake yourself out of your trance and contradict that notion. “No,” you’ll think. “Design is about efficiency, usability, and structural elegance.” I have spent the majority of my adult life wondering about this fundamental question: what exactly is design?And I’m still asking.

Some languages have different words for the different ways we think about design. For instance, in Japanese there is the word sekkei, which connotes designing a mechanism, system, or technology with rationalized metrics for quality. Dezain, on the other hand, goes beyond an object’s function to how it makes us feel. The former can be thought of as the kind of design taught at places like MIT; the latter as the kind of design taught at art school.

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An object that has been sekkei‑ed to be flawless from an engineering perspective can elicit an emotionally empty response. An inspiringly dezain-ed object may incite passion, but if it is not sekkei-ed to be reliable, it will inevitably disappoint. Both ­sekkei and dezain are prerequisites for creating an object, service, or experience that is desirable in the marketplace. This is especially true today, as more and more products feature ever more sophisticated technology. Marrying technology with feeling is the dream that design in the 21st century seeks to realize.

But if one thing quickly surfaces when it comes to technology, it’s the feeling that it is getting much too complex for everyone. We seek simplicity today in our interactions with all forms of technology, but we end up reading long-winded manuals or just giving up. I researched the quest for simplicity in design and technology for my recent book and ended up discovering how complex a subject simplicity really is. Simplicity is about how we feel; complexity is about the possibilities that technology brings. In an age when it’s possible to engineer and build absolutely anything, we have time and opportunity to focus on the feelings, and not just the possibilities, that technology now affords.

John Maeda is associate director of research at the MIT Media Lab and author of The Laws of Simplicity.

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