Art, Design and Usability


When I've taught a design class in the past one of the first exercises I would do was bring in a selection of different products and have students debate their merits: functionality, ease of use, aesthetics, sustainability, etc. One of the products I would bring in every year was the Rexite Attila can crusher, designed by Julian Brown (above). It's a patently pointless object, especially for me since I use almost no aluminum cans. It doesn't work particularly well - it's best if you pinch the sides of the can a bit to help it along before crushing. And it's stupidly expensive, I don't remember how much exactly I paid for it but certainly north of $100. As for sustainability, one student pointed out that a well-stomped foot was at least as effective. But did I buy an expensive useless product, or an inexpensive piece of art? Or something in between?

I was reminded of this by a posting in a series of articles on "what makes great design" by Joel Spolsky, where he muses on what ingredients flip a design from merely good to great. Counterintuitively, his tentative conclusion is that flaws are perhaps a hallmark of a great design - something succeeding in spite of itself. One of the qualities that we often strive for in any kind of design - usability - is actually one of the less reliable indicators of whether something will go from good to great, and this is what's illuminating about Attila.

It's a highly divisive object - people either love it or they hate it. The students would either become entranced by it, or they would find it completely frivolous and a waste of materials. But beyond that, it's very enigmatic. Especially if you see it closed, it's almost impossible to know what it is and what it does. It takes some exploration to discover it, literally unfolding it and revealing its "purpose". Once open, it reveals little surpises in its mechanisms (the hinges of the arms are now seen to be eyeballs that rotate, and a small protruding piece becomes a beak that goes up and down). Now the wings of the bird form are clear, and the smiles appear on people's faces (well, some of them anyway!).

Attila breaks one of the cardinal rules of design: make products easy to understand and intuitive to use.

I'm looking forward to seeing what Joel arrives at as his definition of great design, but to me it seems that being great doesn't come from being obvious but from being enigmatic. This perhaps isn't surprising. After all, if you could learn to play the piano in 30 seconds, it wouldn't be satisfying in the long run. And in our life partners and friends we look for people who can keep us satisfied for a long time by slowly revealing things about themselves in layers, not all at once. Granted, you don't want the control panel of nuclear power station to be enigmatic, but for less mission critical things it can be a virtue.