In this post, Brian, our designer for X-Stand™ Nation, shares his take on the challenges of balancing simple design with functionality.
All day, every day, all of us interact with designed objects that offer an amazing amount functionality. Many before we even leave the house in the morning. For instance:
- When starting our coffee maker each morning, I am confronted with six buttons. Brew timer, brew strength, clean, auto stop and one other button I’m not entirely sure what wonder it will perform if pushed. I only ever use one of these buttons, the brew button. These buttons are impossibly small and identical in size, forcing me to hunt every morning for the single one I need.
- After finding and pushing my coffee maker button, I then move to the bathroom to shave with a beard trimmer that boasts forty-eight trim settings. I’ve used two settings in the three years that I’ve groomed with it almost daily.
- Finally, as I leave the house, I pick up my phone from the kitchen counter and put it in my pocket. As I do, I notice that seventeen apps have been updated overnight as it charged. Fifteen of those seventeen apps I didn’t know I'd installed on my device.
As I get in the car to begin my commute, I make a mental note to uninstall all the apps that I never use to unclutter my phone and free up space for useful stuff. While noting this, I’m prompted me to remind myself that as soon as I get to work, I need to re-map the path to the server my team, and I use to store all our data. This huge hassle has led to some highly inconvenient workarounds due to some mandatory scheduled software update. This train of thought then reminds me that I also need to contact IT because I still can’t approve invoices in my queue because my access approval has accidently been changed….
I start to feel anxious. I reel through a similar to-do list every day. This list has grown solely by the reality that I can’t accomplish necessary daily tasks without negotiating these highly functional, yet complex objects and systems.
This underlying feeling of simmering anxiety drives me to seek simplicty and I believe that I'm not alone in this desire.
As a product designer, I have become acutely appreciative of objects that have proven over time make our tasks, play, and rejuvenation easier and seamless. A quote most often attributed to Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” not only defines scientific principles but embodies an ideal design philosophy.
If the natural world on Earth and the universe follow this principle, why would objects designed by man be more complex than they need to be?
Case in Point: Takeshi Nii's Classic NY Folding Chair
I don't believe everything needs to be stripped to its core functional essence. I believe it’s about making choices to find the sweet spot between simplicity and the addition of meaningful details. Takeshi Nii applied this philosophy when designing his NY folding chair in 1958. He could have chosen to use the minimum amount of materials in his lightweight folding lounge chair; aluminum and textiles. Instead, he chose to substitute wooden armrests for aluminum. This simple choice elevated the warmth and perceived quality of the chair, two attributes that increase the emotional connection humans have with an object. The wood armrests did not enhance its core functionalities of comfort and portability but arguably elevated it from a chair that may have enjoyed some commercial success due to its usefulness to a classic object still relevant almost sixty years later.
Subsequent versions of the NY Folding chair illustrate what can happen to an object if you push past the “as simple as possible” sweet spot. The rocking chair version added functionality, but lost its elegance and visual stability for a feature that no one was asking for:
We’ve tried to instill a “simplicity balance” design philosophy as we developed the X-Stand™. Time will tell if we’ve gone too simple or not simple enough. In future posts, we’ll talk about the process of the design and show some of the choices we made to hopefully deliver just the right amount of simplicity in both function and aesthetic.
What do you think? What products do you think embody the sweet spot in simplicity balance design philosophy?