Where Does it Start?

April 11, 2012

It often begins with a simple question. “How can we make it do this?” “What if it were faster?” With an artist, it begins with a blank canvas. A writer begins with a blank sheet of paper. A musician stares at a silent guitar.

Today’s creators are more likely staring open-mouthed at an iPad, a Google docx and an empty Pro Tools file, but the genesis is the same. It is about looking at something in a different way, forgetting what you know, and creating something unique.

Truly gifted creators bring us things that are at once brand new yet instantly ubiquitous. A golden age of design and innovation was the 1950’s, an era of giant tail fins and sleek profiles. Industrial Designer Henry Dryfuss remarked in 1955 that much of what we see in the modern kitchen is not driven by an interest in food, but by the creative designs of new automobiles and airplanes: Clean, modern, chrome-plated gadgets that took us on a road trip to the future. Sometimes it wasn’t even so much about originality as it was re-thinking what was around us. Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

REEF SandalREEF has become synonymous with surf wear. They grew out of that culture and understand two things go together: the beach and cold beer. Everyone combining those things needs flip flops and a bottle opener, so why not combine them? They began marketing sandals with an opener built into the sole. They sold like hotcakes.

Dohyuk Kwon got tired of fouling his keyboard with fingers greased from digging into the bottom of potato chip canisters. His design for a chip can that unfurls to create an instant bowl is winning raves from users and interest from food producers from this source. Brilliant.

When we first met the mobile phone, it was an oversized, heavy, awkward status symbol that cost a fortune and weighed a ton. Is it any wonder that it earned the nickname “The Brick”? We graduated to smaller devices, and then flip phones, and then the Blackberry became the status symbol. It said, “I’m so important that my phone needs a full keyboard.” Do you own one?

Steve Jobs has said that he was inspired by a The Brickclass that he wandered into in college. It was a calligraphy class and drove his passion for art and design. He often cites it as a “defining moment.” He never forgot what great design could inspire in a user, be it art, music, or a bag of chips. His motivation for the iMac stressed the ease of use, and his desire to put this new technology in the hands of everyday people, not just elite technophiles. The handle at the top of the monitor was an invitation to pick it up. You won’t break it, and it’s not inaccessible. You have to touch it to use it, and Jobs invited you to. So it went with the iPhone.

The Jobs Challenge to the Apple team was to forget everything about the mobile device, and design from the ground up. “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology-not the other way around.” His mandate was to forget about folders, throw away files, and don’t even think about a keyboard. Some have pointed to the “Zen-ness” of Jobs’ design philosophy, his quest to strip away bias and prejudice and realize the essence of a device. Everything must be approached from a naïve perspective. Instead of “how?” designers asked “why not?”

iPhoneTap on an easy-to-recognize icon and you would open an application. Natural swipes and gestures would make navigation intuitive. A robust autocorrect function would render a traditional keyboard useless and obsolete. When they were done, they unveiled a product that could be purchased, unwrapped, turned on, and used. No programming was needed, and modifications could be made easily and conveniently through a user-friendly app store.

The physical design of the device and its packaging continued the aesthetic. Before he worked for Apple, Jonathan Ive designed industrial and plumbing fixtures. When you look at a sink, regardless of the design, you have a pretty good idea of how to use it. Take the simplest of porcelain and chrome, and make it work. Much like an Apple device, it screams “simple”, and like a bathroom fixture, it is synonymous with “clean”. Opening a brand new iPhone is engineered to trigger an emotional response, and the design of the box often takes as long as that of the actual device.

We used to search for information by leafing through an encyclopedia. Britannica has ceased physical publication and our most effective recourse is to “Google it.” After several decades of struggling from the couch to choose one of three television stations, we evolved to a video store, and are now walking upright through a virtual catalog of thousands of titles that reach our living room via a little black box. Blockbuster? They’re adjusting their rabbit ears in Bankruptcy Heaven. The forty-pound boombox that made many go through adolescence with a limp is now a device not any more cumbersome than a box of raisins, and it contains thousands of songs. There’s no need for a backpack full of D-cell batteries, we’ve broken the pencil of tape winding, and a decade’s worth of Culture Club and Grandmaster Flash is safely ensconced in our pocket. As Sony lays off ten thousand and reports billions in losses.

It seems that the innovators of today are less worried about form and sticking with the proven, and more interested in asking the question: What do they need?