Two Views of Design

After watching Objectified again a few days ago I started formulating an idea of the concept of “Design”.

It seems to me there are two separate concepts of “Design” that have become mashed together.

The first concept, which to me is interesting but somewhat useless, is the idea of design as art or as artistic expression. There are plenty of designs that go by on Dornob which is art going for design. Many of the “designs” featured there are either making statements (such as the Nuclear War Shelving Units) or demonstrating technique (such as the laser-cut custom wall shelves) which are ultimately–if not useless, are at least impractical. Don’t get me wrong: I love these things. I love the floating bed concept, and the articles on vintage futurism is always very cool.

The second concept of design is a functional one. It is the idea of design as thinking through a problem obsessively–using various design patterns to decompose a problem (which is inherently a blank slate) and construct and test solutions which work even on the edge cases.

This sort of design is explained with the story in Objectified with the story of the Japanese-inspired toothpick, with the description of various design approaches (formal decomposition of a problem, the cultural or contextual symbolism of an item, and looking at the object within the larger contextual framework where it is placed or used.). It’s described by Jonathan Ives when he describes the design of the iPhone or the making of jigs to help cut a single component out of a block of aluminum. It’s shown when Bill Moggridge describes his early computer laptop design’s “pencil kick” component which kicks small objects out of the hinge.

It is this second concept of design which fascinates me–because to me, it’s about thinking the problem through.

Within my own realm, I’m fascinated by user interface design–which encompasses the realms of human interaction “language” (or the gestures and symbols used to consistently communicate with the computer), about the functional decomposition of a problem set into the hierarchy of components in that representation, and about the subtle (and non-subtle) cues that we use to guide a user to the relevant bits of information.

The current project I’m working on has two pieces–and I find it quite exciting. The first piece is a consumer-facing interface–it gives ad statistics to our advertisers. It’s an interesting project because the primary thing we’re trying to communicate is the power of our system and its usefulness in bringing you potential customer leads.

The second, and far more interesting component to me, however, is our back end administrative console. This is far more interesting because rather than the front end, whose purpose is in part artistic and artistic expression–making the data useful in a pretty way–it’s a far more functional interface.

And functional interfaces are exciting to me, because it requires bringing the full gamut of design tools to communicate the functional components of the interface in a way that is completely unobtrusive. It’s a thousand little decisions like the status light on the front of a MacBook Pro: when you need the information it’s there, almost as if it should be there, almost as if it was always there–but when it’s not needed, it quietly disappears: the calm, considered solution and not constant reminders of “the terrible struggles that we as designers and engineers had in trying to solve some of the problems”, as Jonathan Ives put it.

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