Process of Creation

I've been thinking about the process of creating things. Whether they are graphics for a website, or interaction: like the iPod Touch-man, I want one of those!, or designing everyday things like jar openers. Recently, working through Designing Interactions has brought this to mind a lot. They talk about the design of the first mouse and some of the first computers. Great book so far.

I also finished iWoz last night and, while this is his autobiography, he gets into a lot of design and process and "how we made it" kinds of things. He talks about designing the floppy disk drive for the Apple II, for instance. That drove out of the user need: before this, cassettes (like the things that you make a mix tape with) were used and they were slow. When they first saw a disk drive, they decided that they must have one of those for the Apple. So he starts picking apart the disk drive and looking at the schematic diagrams and the chips being used. The process of the design and the process of making things is fascinating to me.

This is probably why, when I was in SFO last month, their display of designed things caught my attention. I think it was one of the computers that first caught my attention. I didn't snap a picture of it, but I did snap a picture of a few displays that I found interesting:

Design can be a long process

I think that some of the abstract computer software is hard to design partly because it is so abstruse. However, here is a simple object: a toothbrush. And they made dozens of different models to try to get it right.

This probably also highlights something you can't see here: testing in design. I'd guess that they tested those designs. That is something that comes up regularly with the Xerox PARC in Designing Interactions: measuring different options.

Design can be short

This little device opens jars. It's got grippy teeth to grab the lid and a grippy handle with which to turn. And there aren't a lot of these kinds of devices (by comparison to toothbrushes) and yet how many versions are there? 54. I'm pretty sure #s 3-5 are the same in varying degrees of assembly, but I'll say #3 and #4 are different and call it 4 version. And if you look the difference between version #1 and #5 is really very little. Maybe there is more to this process that we didn't see but, from my experience, sometimes you just get it nearly right, fresh out of the gate.

Don't build faster horses

I can hear the back-room design discussion on this one: "It'll be great: people won't have to learn to use something new. They already know how to use it."

"If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse." - Henry Ford What his customers ultimately wanted, obviously was a big, ugly, gas-guzzling truck car.

I think this one can be tricky: you want to design what your customers/users want, but at the same time, they are limited by the lens with which they perceived the world. You, as a designer/imaginer, are often working to blow open boxes of constraint. That is why you can come up with new ideas.

You aren't re-inventing the wheel

This is several variations on the mouse. The mouse has been invented and re-invented a few times. I'm not sure when these models were created: I'd guess within the last 5-10 years (scrollwheel, orange color, laptop mouse). So the mouse had been approximately 15 years old by this time.

But the biggest thing here is the hubris of the "vision":

Just in case the text is too blurry: "Purpose: To help business travelers find a comfortable and effective new way to interact with their laptop computer."

Comfort and effectiveness are valuable goals for certain. To make a more comfortable mouse and a more effective one: certainly good designs goals. But it says "a comfortable way" not "a more comfortable way" - as though they were inventing the laptop mouse. And it says a "new way." That mouse doesn't look that new.

I'm really not criticizing the team on this one. It looks like a good mouse. But is it really a paradigm shift? I don't think so. But I don't think a paradigm shift was needed. It looks like the cord is hidden (for easy storage) and the design is fairly flat (assumption: for easy storage in a bag). Those are good things to do.

I'm taking away from this: sometimes I don't need to re-invent the wheel: the wheel is OK. I can, however, make it better. I should be happy to improve a good thing; to stand on the shoulders of giants. And my project purposes and design goals should echo that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007, 12:00 AM

tagged: books, design, ideaprocess, parc