Posts Tagged ‘design’

Simplicity, Complexity and Contradiction in Design



Belatedly I finished John Maeda‘s book, The Laws of Simplicity, which outlines ten laws for balancing simplicity and complexity in business, technology and design. In effect he is building on the “Less is More” principle, popularized by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (originally spoken by Robert Browning in 1855.)

I’ve been a long admirer of the concept of simplicity. In architecture and the arts, simplicity was often called “minimalism” or even “modernism”. At the turn of the last century, in reacting to rampant pluralism of styles, and trying to come to terms with industrial production and the embodiment of socialist ideals, modernists rejected ornamentation and sought more fundamental architectural values. They stripped architecture down to it minimal functionality. Works by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier of the 1920’s and 1930’s exemplify this movement.

By the 60-70’s simplicity had become stylized to the point that some reacted against its “over-simplification” burden of stylized, soul-less modern architecture. The vanguard of this reaction was Robert Venturi‘s compelling 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. In this book, the author call for a return to richness in architectural meaning, and the embrace of inherent contradictions of the human condition. Unfortunately what they started was the beginning of the often misguided and cacaphonic post-modern movement in architecture.

Maeda’s book mentions this cyclical relationship and rhythm simplicity and complexity have towards their coexistence. We seem once again to be drifting towards the simplicity extreme again these days.

What I liked the most about Venturi’s book, isn’t so much the complexity part, but the contradiction part. I think we are bound to live with contradiction. This is a part of what makes us human. I love simplicity but I value complexity. Fractal rules are so simple yet they reveal a deep complexity. Humans are wonderfully complex but driven by very simple hopes and loves. I see it all the time within me and in my children.

It seems that Maeda tries to dig deeper to a more spiritual plane. What he write seems more than a series of observations that can be translated into techniques for product development or organizing your desk. It is less a series of laws to abide by and more a series of conversations worth engaging in, with our very being, in search for a deeper meaning.

Vittorio Gregotti, Italian architect, architectural critic and former editor of Casabella has a whole chapter entitled “On Simplicity” in his 1996 book Inside Architecture. Here he muses: (my italics)

…to me simplicity is not simplification, and above all not simplification as a formal model. Eloquent simplicity can be reached through great effort, but it is never a good starting point, nor above all, an objective at any cost. Architecture is not simple; it can only become simple.

…Simplicity must make contradiction itself clear and compehensible without denying its existence and its value as a material for establishing difference.

Gregotti talks about simplicity in the context of architecture, but it can equally be applied to product design or design of online services. What he seems to be getting at is that we should not strive for simplicity for its own sake. This will end up being another misguided stylistic overture or even worse, end up denying the a meaningful part of our existence.

The future of simplicity seems to be in its ability to work with complexity. Industrial production techniques nowadays allow for simple, personalized variations in design. (think iPods inscribed with personal messages before delivery). Websites deliver, in simple form, personalized information that is in fact generated through complex algorithms and make use of immense processing power.

Great complexity belies anything of great beauty or meaning.

Leibniz once wrote:

The infinite fold separates or moves between matter and soul, the facade and the closed room, the outside and the inside.

Infinity that is enclosed in a finite space. Now that’s a simple and complex idea, if not a pure contradiction.

The Satisfying Touch UI Experience

It’s a little embarrassing, but I get a lot of my insights from watching TED presentations. Blame it on the combination of my 2 hour commute, iPod Nano and TED providing video podcasts.

In a fascinating presentation by neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran, he talks about how the brain works with sensory input. What stuck with me was towards the end of his talk:

Something very interesting is happening in the angular gyrus, because it is the crossroads between hearing, vision and touch and it became enormous in humans. I think it is the basis of many uniquely human abilities as abstraction, metaphor and creativity.

With interfaces, it is important to get sensory feedback. For example, right now, I am typing on a keyboard. This action creates a tactile feedback (it depresses), an auditory feedback (it clicks), and a visual feedback (letters appear on the screen). Unknowingly we feel satisfaction when these sensory feedback is properly provided. When typing on a keyboard does not produce letters on the screen, or the letters are somehow delayed, we have an emotional response – one of frustration.

Touch experience on the iPhone and LG Prada phone

Touch experience on the iPhone and LG Prada phone

With the iPhone there is no tactile or haptic feedback. (Some phones do have haptic feedback in the form of light vibrations)† In order to compensate for the fact that it is missing the one of three feedback that is necessary for a good interface, it provides strong feedback through the remaining two. When you use the dialer on the iPhone, it provide a strong color change (visual feedback) and the dial tone (auditory feedback) whenever you touch they keys. Same thing happens when you use the on-screen qwerty keyboard. In order to compensate for the fact that is is no tactile key-pressing sensation, iPhone provides visual feedback in the form of the keys popping up, and auditory feedback in the form of a tapping sound.

Compare the iPhone experience to the LG Prada phone experience. LG Prada phone provides haptic feedback (you feel a slight vibrarion at your fingertips) and visual feedback, however the color change in the interface is weak (trying to stay “cool” by using grey tones), and auditory feedback is aways the same no matter what you do (it’s the same bell sound). This results in the Prada phone having a less satisfying touch UI experience over the iPhone.

A large part of the satisfaction when using a touch UI is based on providing appropriate feedback. Another large part is based on what metaphor from everyday life you adopt and present to the users. Watching Ramachandran’s talk made me realize is that there is a deeper neurological basis for what consitiutes to a satisfying touch UI experience: Our brains are wired to take in sensory feedback and develop an emotional response to it (sometimes without us realizing it).

When a Display Becomes Architectural

The video wall inside the IAC building, Frank Gehry’s New York City landmark is huge. At this scale is ceases to be a “display” screen and comes into the realm of the architectural, where it starts to define the character of the space.

This is very high on the list of places to visit next time I am in NY.

ITP Big Screens Testing Round 2 from shiffman on Vimeo.

Messy Desktop Interface

You don’t see too many new interface designs for organizing “stuff” on your PC. Bumptop (see TED video) one is interesting and amusing because it accommodates “messiness” better than any other interface out there.

I love designer Bruce Mau’s An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth that articulates the way that creative people work. #25 in a list of 43 statements reads:

25. Donít clean your desk. You might find something in the morning that you canít see tonight.

This may be just the right desktop interface for him and the rest of us who keep messy desks.



Navigating New York

I remember when I first moved to Manhattan for grad school in ’94 that is was really disorienting when you exit the subway station. I had to walk a block to discover which way was North. Finally someone (NYC DOT) had the good sense to do something about it, in the form of a sidewalk compass.

I don’t know why someone couldn’t have thought of this sooner. Sometime the most simple solutions are the most useful.