Culture Other

form vs. function — a stupid false dichotomy.

Core77’s design blog led me to this article about form vs. function in mobile phone design. The title of the article says it all: Is the ‘dumb blonde’ phone here to stay?

In this context, a ‘dumb blonde’ phone is one which looks pretty but lacks functionality. I can understand why someone thought that was a good gag, but it completely misses the point. It assumes that people actually want all the added functionality of web-browsing, email, multimegapixel cameras, Bluetooth, music playback and God knows what else; that they’ve sacrificed something by choosing a stylish phone instead. But perhaps they haven’t. Perhaps they just want to make phone calls and send texts. Here’s a paragraph whose stupidity makes it worth quoting in full:

Andrew Brown, IDC’s European mobile devices programme manager, said the operators and manufacturers have played their part in the dumbing down. “Everyone gets very excited about aesthetics. It’s easier to sell design than it is to sell feature functionality – it’s laziness.” Good looks are immediately apparent to the average buyer – the benefits of having 3G connectivity or a smart operating system are not.

Which inevitably reminds me of the equally stupid quote from Sim Wong Hoo I blogged about earlier. Sim, as the CEO of Creative, was completely failing to learn the obvious lesson about iPod thrashing his products in the marketplace. The same lessons apply to mobile phones.

Here’s the first point: to choose a simple, attractive phone over an ugly but hi-tech one is not an irrational choice. It seems like such an obvious point that I can’t quite believe I have to explicitly say it, but I suspect I do. There’s a bizarre prejudice against aesthetics in the tech community, as though the pleasure in using an object you actually like is somehow an illusion, a deceit, and something of no value. Now if that’s how you feel, then fair enough. Good luck to you. Go and buy the most function-filled gadget, or the one which gives you most oomph per dollar, and ignore design issues completely. But if you want to sell gadgets to the non-geek community, you have to learn that people like to own nice things.

We’re not talking about a once-in-a-lifetime purchase: a mobile phone costs about as much as a handbag. Why on earth shouldn’t it be a fashion item?

Here’s the second bizarre prejudice: that added functionality adds value. This is the mentality that produced the much-mocked ballpoint pen with clock that used to be a staple of Innovations catalogues. Functionality you don’t want doesn’t add value, it reduces it. Even if it doesn’t interfere with the main function of an object, it makes it more complicated, which is a Bad Thing. I only use my mobile for phone calls and texting; so for me, all the other menu options are just unnecessary rubbish I have to scroll past to find what I want. By all means make a Swiss Army Knife phone with a tool for getting the stones out of horses hooves; just don’t expect me to buy one.

But the real problem, the one that underlies the others, is a belief that design is something you put on at the end, a lick of paint to pull in the stupid, style-obsessed consumer who somehow doesn’t appreciate the wonderful functionality you’re giving them. But design, properly, is not superficial. It deals with every aspect of the user’s experience of the product, down to the number of button-presses to perform an action and the obviousness or otherwise of how to do it. If a product is badly designed (or just as likely, not really designed at all), if it doesn’t try to make it easy for the user, then it’s a bad product, however many features it has.

My father has a PVR/DVD recorder that makes the perfect case study. When he got it a couple of years ago, it was the bleeding edge of the technology. And to be fair, it has proved itself to be a brilliant step forward from the VCR – no more scrabbling around for blank tapes, no difficulty trying to find what you recorded earlier. The basic concept of recording TV on a hard drive is superb. But despite that, I’ve come to actively dislike it. Because it was obviously put together by people who put all their effort into providing a certain set of features none of it into the user experience.

First example: pretty much everything you would need to do with the machine can be done, as you’d expect, by pressing buttons on the remote and using onscreen menus. But if you want to stop a timer recording, you have to press the stop button on the front of the machine twice. That’s completely unguessable, and easily improved upon; when someone presses ‘stop’ on the remote, just give them an ‘are you sure?’ message. Second example: despite the fact that even slightly complicated functions are managed through onscreen interfaces, the remote has 76 buttons. I don’t know what the right number is, but I’m damn sure it’s less than that. It also came with three separate manuals — an outline of the basic functions, a hideously complicated full manual that explained every possible function badly, and something in-between because, presumably, they realised the other two were both crap.

I’m conflating two meanings of ‘design’ here, attractiveness and usability, and of course they aren’t the same thing. Indeed, products often sacrifice usability for aesthetic appeal. What they have in common, though, is that they both make the product more likeable. They give pleasure. But pleasure is intangible and unmeasurable, so it’s all too easy for people to undervalue it, or just to pay lip-service to it. Because the thing is – good design is hard. It takes a lot of time, effort and commitment, an endless appetite for details and a deeply stubborn perfectionism. A company is never going to get it right if, deep down, they think of design as superficial.

Culture Other

eBooks on iPod?

There’s a rumour doing the rounds that the next iPod will be designed for reading as well as music and video. It remains to be seen whether that happens, and indeed whether the iPod is well-suited for reading (as compared, for example, to the more specialised Sony Reader).

Whether or not their time has come, I do think that electronic reading devices are potentially exciting. It’s not a new idea, of course, and none of the previous attempts have succeeded, not least because the competing technology – the book – is so very good at its job. A book is already small, light, very high-resolution, has a simple intuitive user interface and doesn’t need power. For you to spend a few hundred pounds on an electronic version, it’s going to have be pretty damn good. One advantage of building it into a music player is that it gives people a reason to buy it.

So if books are so good anyway, why do I think it’s a good idea? Firstly there’s the capacity. It’s not just one book, it’s a whole library. Even just for reading on a commute you might want to have a choice of three or four books. If you were going away for a few months, you could take hundreds of titles. You could keep reference books on there. Assuming that the system was able to read generic text files, HTML and PDF, you wouldn’t even need to buy all the books from Apple; just think of the enormous wealth of stuff which is out of copyright.Project Gutenberg has 18,000 books available for download.

But the other point is that it doesn’t have to be books. You could plug it in every night and have your computer automatically update it with all your favourite blogs and news services. You might even be willing to pay a modest subscription to get the newspaper(s) of your choice automatically downloaded onto your iPod to read on the train.



Nintendo have announced that their new games console, referred to previously as the ‘Revolution’, is actually going to be called the ‘Wii’. Personally I think that ‘Revolution’ was a fucking awful name – or at least a leadenly literal-minded and unimaginative one. I can’t quite decide about ‘Wii’, although it does make a good logo:

I think it’s a good thing that it’s neither too techy-sounding or too macho, but it may have strayed too far into Hello Kitty territory. Nintendo are keen on the association with ‘we’, but I’m not sure that makes up for the associations with small Scottish things and urine. If they were going to go for a clean, modern sounding monosyllable, how about Kii? Or something.

Culture Other

Curious clothing links

both from wmmna:

naked knitting
spray-on clothes

Culture Other

MAKE, folk art, and

I love MAKE: Blog. Not because I actually want to make my own automated cocktail dispenser or LED tank-top that plays Conway’s Game of Life, or even an iPod Nano arcade cabinet. But I love the fact that there are people who do these things. A while ago, I went to the Folk Archive exhibition at the Barbican, and said:

It was an exhibition of contemporary British folk art, but that term was interpreted extremely broadly; the exhibition includes (some of these are photos rather than the actual object): trade union banners, graffiti, prison art, modified cars, costumes from traditional festivals, prostitute calling cards, sectarian murals, shop signs, painted false nails, football fanzines, protest placards, crop circles, sand castles, flower arrangements…

The sheer range of objects makes it hard to know what to say. Many of them were complete tat – unremarkable examples of mundane objects – but seeing them all together one did get a sense of a huge wealth of amateur, unofficial creativity. I enjoyed it and found it curiously cheering.

Whatever you think of ‘folk art’ as a category, and whether or not you think an iPod Nano MAME cabinet fits that category, what does apply to the stuff at MAKE is “a huge wealth of amateur, unofficial creativity”. People making stuff, in their spare time, because they want to. Love it.

I admit I find it harder to be so cheerfully enthusiastic about the reams and reams of bad poetry on the internet; but even if I don’t want to read the stuff, I’m glad it exists.


Sir Shigeru

Shigeru Miyamoto has been made Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Damn straight. If the man who invented Mario and Zelda doesn’t deserve a knighthood, who does?

That doesn’t make it any less annoying that the release date of The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess has now been pushed back by a year since its original projected release last November, but I don’t begrudge Miyamoto-san a bit of non-industry recognition.

via wmmna