How do companies make complicated technology appealing and easy to use? Curator Campbell Bickerstaff previews an upcoming exhibition and book that looks at the interface between people, machines and design.
The smart phone, a device first launched on the market in 2007, is now the go-to information technology machine for the masses. As of 2013, production of smart phones worldwide surpassed that of its predecessor, the mobile phone. Smart phones have dominated the US market since 2011 and the international shift has been driven by new markets in China, India and Indonesia. Global domination took just six years.
Why and how do these devices appeal to us? Firstly, a smart phone is a mobile device that can make and receive phone calls and text messages almost anywhere in the world. But it has much greater computing capability and connectivity than its predecessor, the mobile phone. It can send and receive emails. It can take photos and video footage. It is a personal digital assistant and a portable media player. All of this technology and more can be operated via a highly responsive, high resolution touch screen that is both simple and appealing to use. This remarkable device is small enough to fit into the palm of the user’s hand or in their pocket. And finally, it is a lifestyle accessory.
It is the intuitive nature of its operation that has led to our rapid embrace of smart phone technology. The smart phone is an incredibly complicated device, and yet the user needs no special skills or understanding of the technology to use it. How we reached this point in human-machine interaction or ‘interface’ is the focus of this exhibition and book.
Human-machine interface operates through a loop of input and feedback. The user performs a task and the machine offers a sign of some kind that the task has been performed successfully. This sensory feedback (see / feel / hear) is both satisfying and reassuring and responds to a basic human need. When machines were mechanical, the link between the action and the device was physical and so was the feedback. Hitting a typewriter key to type a letter or adjusting a tuning knob on a radio to get the clearest signal provides immediate sensory feedback. The advent of computers heralded a dislocation from a physical input / output system that challenged designers to explore new methods of interface.
The smart phone had many forerunners, for example, the personal digital assistants of the 1990s (PalmPilot and Newton) but they did not resonate with consumers. However these early products created an important legacy that later industrial designers built upon to develop the smart phone. Such developmental threads are echoed in other products – from calculators to computers, typewriters to toys — leading to the evolution of the information technologies that we enjoy today. These threads of successful and not-so-successful design methods, approaches, influences and ideals are shared by different companies and designers, in different parts of the world, at different times.
In the 20th century great information technology companies, such as Olivetti, Braun and Apple, aspired to high ideals, practised corporate benevolence and believed that their products had the ability to democratise the workplace and sometimes the wider society.
Olivetti was a small Italian family business established in the first decade of the 20th century by the engineer Camillo Olivetti.Camillo wanted to change people’s lives. He wanted to engineer a great Italian typewriter, employ people and contribute to the emerging modern Italy. Camillo’s son Adriano Olivetti (1901–1960) was appointed general manager in 1933. Adriano was enamoured by the modernist aesthetic and had, in the years previous to his appointment, visited the US to observe modern industrial practices. He immediately set to recruiting the best designers and architects and oversaw the company’s transition to one of the first Italian industrial firms to consider the links between the means of production of a new technological product, its appearance and its cultural role in the contemporary environment. Adriano believed that
“design is a question of substance, not just form” and that it was a “tool a company uses through its products, graphics and architecture to convey an image that is not just simply appearance but a tangible reflection of a way of being and operating.” (1)
Braun was established in Germany in the 1920s by engineer Max Braun. His unexpected death in 1951 handed control to his sons Artur (1925–2013), an engineer, and Erwin (1921–1992), a business graduate, who quickly set about revitalising Braun, forging alliances with some of Germany’s most influential and progressive people including film director and art historian Dr Fritz Eichler and industrial designer Wilhelm Wagenfeld. This team looked to the Hochschule fur Gestaltung (Hfg) (school of design) in Ulm, which had been recently established (with a purpose and curriculum similar to the Bauhaus of the 1920s) to train a new generation of designers. They immediately engaged two of the lecturers, Hans Gugelot (1920–1965) and Otl Aicher as consultants to help Braun rethink the design of their consumer products (radios, gramophones and electric razors). Within eight months this team had succeeded in reshaping the entire Braun product line — replacing any trace of the dated and distinguishing features of the previous decades with new materials, finishes and shapes.
In 1955 Dieter Rams (1932–) joined Braun as an architect and interior designer. Rams has articulated his belief that good design and democracy are intertwined(2). This relationship is complex and not particularly literal, but the basic premise is that democratic products embody democratic values such as freedom, mobility, accessibility, simplicity, affordability, connectedness and transparency. As Germany recovered from chaos in the aftermath of World War II, Rams sought to apply these democratic ideals to his designs for Braun.
The principles of US-based company Apple were ingrained at its genesis by the company’s founders Steve Jobs (1955–2011) and Steve Wozniak (1950–). They established Apple to build computer technology, not principally for gain, but for what they perceived as its social and ethical reach(3). At the time the company was started in the mid 1970s, the future of the computer lay in the hands of a few — the powerful, large industrial and military complex. The first Apple computer, the Apple I, was designed as a computer for people, a personal computer. Apple’s skill was in reimagining technologies struggling in their preconsumer phase (the personal computer, the digital media player and the smart phone) to create everyday products like the Macintosh, the iPod and iPhone. By resolving issues of usability and sourcing new materials to make them possible, Apple broadened the acceptance and usefulness of these technologies.
1. Unattributed quote believed to be Adriano Olivetti from http://storiaolivetti.telecomitalia.it
2. Of post-WWII Germany Dieter Rams said “the only thing that we had in our mind was to clean up the disturbed world…thinking about new designs in a clear honest way can also help democracy” quoted in The genius of Design, episode 4, 2010, BBC2.
3. Jobs’ views were aligned with venture capatalist Mike Markkula’s in settign up Apple. “He emphasised that you should never start a company with the goal of gettign rich. Your goal should be making something you believe in and in making a company that will last.” Jobs quoted in Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs, Little, Brown, USA, 2011, p78.