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Jonathan Ive on Industrial Design (codesketch.com)
55 points by g0atbutt on Apr 15, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 21 comments

I'm a big fan of his work, but I feel minimalism can easily be taken too far. Does an indicator not need to be visible when it's off? How do you confirm that it is off. Yes, you'll eventually learn where it is by repeated exposure to it when it's on but there will still be some uncertainty even then, especially if you deal with multiple machines.

Personally I like that minimalism and want it in the products I buy, but I'd not go so far as to say it's more usable than a more prosaic alternative where you have a row of cheap indicator leds with little pictograms next to them.

Reminds me of this comic strip too:


I don’t know. This LED has one function: telling you the device is still on when the monitor isn’t. That’s all it does. It’s obvious that the device is on when the monitor is on, so you don’t need a LED for that (ThinkPads really do have a frickin’ LED for that! As does my cheap Compaq.).

Putting a LED at a visible location and making it invisible as long as it is off seems like a pretty elegant solution to that problem. I don’t think it’s harder to figure out the sleep light than this whole row of LEDs on my old ThinkPad with their cryptic pictograms or the dazzling array of blinkenlights on my cheap Compaq laptop (complete with equally puzzling pictograms and including LEDs which light up in different colors so you presumably have to learn a whole color code).

Macs in general only opt for LEDs when displaying stuff in the UI is not possible (sleep light and battery indicator for checking battery status when the Mac is off), one exception being that darned caps lock. Spotlight’s icon pulses when your HDD is indexed. There are progress bars when stuff is unzipped or copied. Why the need for a HDD activity LED?

That’s a bit dishonest of me. There is multitasking, so stuff might be going on in the background, but I do think that in general it’s good to strive for a world in which we don’t need HDD activity LEDs. I also think we are pretty much there, I, at least, didn’t miss it. (Although not knowing why my good old desktop PC didn’t respond in 1998 because they decided to leave out the HDD activity light would have been pretty horrible. But that was then :)

I've had laptops where the monitor would shut off to save power and having an obvious way to know it is on is very valuable. I do not want to hit thepower button if the machine is on.

In general, dedicated hardware indicators are handy when your screen may have died or otherwise cannot rely on a monitor.

I think this goes to show just how much thought has been put into small stuff like this. For instance, there is no need for the the sleep indicator to indicate anything when it's off - simply because you know the laptop is alive when the screen is on (the indicator lights up solid white when the screen turns off). However, the battery indicator button combined with a stripe of lights show a function - the level of battery capacity left - so they need to be visible even when they're off.

With the old Powerbooks and MacBook Pros, the hinges on the top of the lid would extend magnetically just before the lid closed. These are the small gems that makes you smile when you're interested in product design.

I haven't found minimalism to impact usability myself, but there's clearly some instances where they have given the user a task of figuring someting out. For instance, a friend of mine never figured out that the top button on his iPhone locked the screen until I told him.

I would actually bet that's a case of Apple relying too much on familiarity. It's in the same place as the (more clearly marked) lock switch on iPods and roughly the same size and shape, so logically it's the lock, right? Except that won't work if you didn't have an iPod.

I've seen the documentary and agree that it's a great way to spend an hour or so. What was disturbing though is exposed in the first minute of this video clip. I'm forgetting his name, but the speaker is basically suggesting that the only impactful company in the world actually doing design is Apple. It's disheartening to hear, and in the years since the documentary that point seems to be even more true.

Do you think we'll see a renaissance of design as a differentiator for businesses, or is something so difficult to account for prior to product launch doomed to be discarded by all but a few companies?

It's Dieter Rams, and he's been a big inspiration to a lot of designers (including Jonathan Ive). He actually said "only a few companies", and then mentioned Apple.

There are other companies, but few in the computer / consumer electronics business.

I think the key is that most companies treat design as an afterthought, or an expense. It's completely irrelevant to most users, but look at most PC laptops - they have a nice, glossy lid and front bezel. But the bottom cover seems like a minefield of stickers, covers, fan openings and screws. There is no design there. The design job ended with the obvious, visible parts.

Again, completely irrelevant to most users as they will never look at the bottom cover. But it speaks a lot about how these companies think about design - and why Apple is still the only company with a unibody laptop design.

Great design is a way of making products that aren't commodities, and for which there are no direct substitutes. Dell can be squeezed on price because I don't care whether my box comes from Dell or some other manufacturer, while Apple can't because they are beautifully made. I'm sure Apple's core customers wouldn't be caught dead with an ugly Dell laptop.

I think the problem is that CEO types don't understand design and how you can use it to position yourself in the market. Bang & Olufsen is a great example of this: They were known for beautifully designed products in the 80's and 90's but today they are in serious trouble and laying off people. Instead of working with their design legacy, which is what made their fortune (their new products look more or less like the ones they put out 20 years ago) they try to compete on screensize and sound quality. Top management doesn't see the obvious problem, and their brand is slowly eroding away.

Take away quote for me:

"So many of the products we're surrounded by, they want you to be very aware of just how clever the solution was... [a solution should] speak to how you are going to use it, not to the terrible struggles that we as designers and engineers had."

Well said. A lot of products I own make me feel this way, and its always refreshing to use some so refined.

This is from a documentary called Objectified:


^ Highly recommended, it's a really good way to spend an hour.

It is amazing how many parallels there are between industrial design and software design. In some way the two disciplines are indistinguishable.

Yet, the software industry culture tends to prefer designers with computer science background/training, rather than "proper" design background.

I agree, IVE talks about spending a lot of time designing "fixtures" to hold parts during the various CNC operations. That is completely analogous to spending time creating macros, scripts, development tools, etc. Essentially creating tools that will help create tools.

Computer science is a necessary and essential component of software engineering.

Designing software properly _is_ "proper" design. Just a different set of variables.

Notes on the Synthesis of Form, by Christopher Alexander, can't be recommended enough for seeing a teapot as an elegant system / understanding the parallels between physical & software design.


Objectified is really great documentary, highly suggested to whoever "make" stuff.

The documentary Helvetica was made by the same director, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helvetica_%28film%29. I was impressed that a documentary about fonts could be so engaging.

Yeah, I've loved both of them so far. I believe there's a third coming too, although I don't know the topic.

One of my favorite designers. Interesting to hear him talking about creating the tools to create the design.

The whole documentary and Apple's approach to design can be summed up in this one sentence Ive makes: "..that's quite obsessive isn't it?"

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