Saturday, June 23, 2012
Some thoughts on simple design
I think it was Merlin Mann who coined the phrase “appropriatism” and then it was Frank Chimero who caught the idea and ran with it... the central precept is this:
“Add things until it starts sucking, take things away until it stops getting better.”
I've spoken about my appreciation of Appropriatism before and this is kind of a follow-on from those thoughts.
For our 15 year wedding anniversary, Olly and I exchanged watches... we had read somewhere that “clock” was the gift that symbolised 15 years of wedded bliss and Olly was in desparate need of a suitable timepiece after the interchangable watches we’d all bought had all died on her. Olly chose a sweet metal-band Lorus or Sekonda number... and I picked the Casio F-91W digital watch... the cheap, plastic one allegedly favoured by terrorists. (It's a terror-wristwatch!!!)
Why did I pick the F-91W? I wanted it for three reasons...
(1) I wanted a metaphor for something cheap that was now priceless to me... an item that demonstrated the transformational power of the gift.
(2) I really like the simple design... it's as if Casio have heeded the principle of “adding things until it starts sucking, and taking things away until it stops getting better.”
In essence, it does exactly what I need and nothing more... I like that. I also like the idea that it hasn't really changed in 20 years... and is still cheap.
(3) It is cheap. £10 in Argos. Cheaper on Amazon or eBay. It's like an anti-status symbol. I have my steel g-shock that Olly got me for my Christmas in 2001... I love it and have only had to change its battery once in 10 years. That’s my status symbol... the F-91W is not.
Since getting the watch for these reasons... I have been pondering the power of simple design.
In many ways... design has this association with the new or the different... a new or different (or both) way of solving a problem. Design, for me, is about intention... it is about seeking to solve a problem presented... it is not just about “fashion” design albeit they do solve the problem of our nakedness... some more elegantly than others.
I guess that’s the point... some solutions are more elegant than others. I consider the F-91W to be an elegant solution... it is not a pretty solution by any means but it is elegant because it solves my problem effectively in a very efficient manner. It is a simple and appropriate design... and has lasted the test of time as a result.
When I think of simple and appropriate design... I think of the F-91W. I also think of the iPod (the classic model) and the Bic biro pen. I think of Converse All-Star lows (preferably in black or white)... or Levi’s iconic 501s (albeit the 501 has changed in years since its initial introduction and there have been multiple iterations since). I also look to The Moleskine Cahier or a Penguin paperback.
Timeless designs... dull and overlooked by some... treasured by others.
It's not a change thing... I am not adverse to change... far from it. It's more about celebrating the products that have gotten their designs “just right”. They aren't about “more” and they aren't about “less”... they are like Goldilocks... they are about “just right”.
Whilst we should never stop thinking about improvements... sometimes we should take a step back and acknowledge when we’ve got it “just right”.
The thing is, however... we are usually too close and need the time to see this.
Look around you and think about everything you consider to be “just right”. Pretty much everything that is “just right” has time on it’s side:
The jeans I am wearing (Levi’s 581s with the cinch buckle) are 17 years old. I got them before I was married... wore them then gave them away to my dad when I went through my cheeseburger-Elvis phase. He kindly returned them a few months ago as I returned to a point where I could wear them again. They are a 32” waist. And whilst I wouldn't consider them to be a simple design (thanks to the cinch) I do think they are “just right”... especially with all the extra fading and scuffing that my dad’s wear provided. They have become “just right” through time.
Worn in... acclimatised...part of... these are all descriptions that could be applied to something you consider to be “just right”... although not solely to simple design. Some designs have unintentional quirks that we get used to... that, in some way, evolve into valuable characteristics that we wouldn't dream of removing. This takes time.
Simple designs have time on their side... they have either lasted... ridden out the ups and downs of fashion... or they have been designed to last. It's almost as if they have been intentionally created not to be noticed. I think the best designs are the ones we don't necessarily notice... designs that just work.
Coming back to the F-91W... it is just right and it just works for me... and I appreciate these considerations. It's not at all about making do... but accepting it is all I need. This is the crux of simple design for me... the realisation and the acceptance that it is all I need to do the job at hand... nothing more, nothing less.
PS: I bought a second F-91W this week... it has an orange strap and ’disco lights’ when I press the light button. I don't think it's a ’proper’ Casio but for £4, I'm not complaining too much. It's fun.