Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Design Matters

November 2011

By Mike Gould

Sorry to do two Apple articles in a row, but there was a major disturbance in the force last month and I have to comment on it.

The death of Steve Jobs is still fresh in memory as I write this, but this piece isn’t about him directly. It’s more about his legacy, and art and science and ergonomics and the meaning of life. Simple stuff.

I think one of the main lessons that Steve taught us is that how a tool looks, feels, and interacts with you is as important as what the tool does. This applies to hammers, soldering irons, computers, refrigerators, telephones, whatever. The issue isn’t form vs. function, it’s how well the form allows you to function.

First Make It Work, Then Make It Pretty
And Apple is the master of interactive design, making tools that are a pleasure to pick up, hold, stroke, and talk to. They fit the hand, are pleasing to the eye, and do their jobs with as little fuss as possible. Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief designer, deserves lot of credit with the above, but he was hired and managed by Jobs, and had to put up with a lot of Jobsian nit-picking and micromanagement before cranking out such gems as the original iMac, iPhone, and currently, the iPad.

Everything I’ve read about Jobs makes him out to be a less than delightful boss; he was fussy, driven, rude to people, and prone to yell at fellow elevator riders. But he delivered “insanely great” products that met his strict requirements. I never met him, but saw his act at MacWorld in 1999 when he introduced the first multi-colored iMacs. Jobs’ stage delivery is an example of the “Reality Distortion Field”, whereby everything he says and shows you is so cool and convincing that the critical facilities of your brain are bypassed and you end up loving everything that is presented.

(Disclosure: That has certainly worked for/on me. I am admittedly a wee bit biased, as I have been making my living for the last 25 years tweaking, troubleshooting, and teaching Macs.)

But when the field wears off, you are somehow still enamored of the products, and go out and buy them. Why? Because they look cool, work well, and show a lot of thought and design work went into them. They cost more, but not a lot more, and are generally worth it.

Nobody’s Perfect
There were a few stinkers: the “Apple Hockey Puck” mice that came with the original iMacs were, I think, the poorest designed mice, ever. I’m not real crazy about the current run of Mac Mice, either, but they look nice, fit the hand, and do what they are supposed to do. (I prefer the Microsoft Mouse, myself – more buttons, more ergonomic. As long as you are right-handed, of course; the Apple mouse works with either hand.)

I think that one of the main reasons that all the designers I know use Macs is because they look and feel like a real designer created them. Remember that when Macs first came out, all the other computers out there were plain black or beige boxes that looked and felt like they were designed by and for engineers. This is a trend that continues to this day; Dells are mostly black, other makes may come in different colors, but they run the same Windows software, with its baggage of design mistakes. The original Windows was designed to work just like the Mac, only backwards.

In the Beginning
On Macs, the important stuff is at the top and along the right hand side. Why? Because of the way newspapers are laid out in Western civilization. When you open a newspaper or magazine, your eye goes to the top of the page, then scans down the right hand side. Apple, under the direction of Jobs, thought that was a good paradigm and designed the Mac desktop to work that way. Jobs established the Human Interface Group to sit down and study how human beings do their desk jobs. Their findings guided the development of the Mac operating system.

Microsoft decided the most important stuff should go at the bottom and along the left side, just to differentiate it from the Mac, and the ergonomics could go jump up a rope. It’s like PCs are designed to be good enough, but Macs are made to be great.

Another reason artists and designers love Macs: originality. Somebody sat down and thought up something new, did their homework, designed it to look and work nice.

Copy Cats
Windows is a Mac knock-off; you knew this, right? When Bill Gates and his minions sat down to design Windows, they had a Mac in front of them and said aloud, “How do we do this using standard PC hardware?”. Microsoft has never denied this. They acquire and extend, and rarely innovate.

Windows 7 is starting to look somewhat OK to me. I have an Asus laptop that I use to program my laser lightshow and it works, well, OK. A few wake-from-sleep issues, disappearing USB devices, but I can work with it. “Work” is the word here. Somehow, everything on this mushy-keyed device seems like work, whereas I actually enjoy pushing the cursor around on my Mac.

Maybe Win 8 will be as great as Balmer (Microsoft CEO) says. We’ll see. Lord knows they’ve had enough Macs to tear apart that they ought to be clue-enabled by now.

Anyway, back to Jobs. Will Apple fall apart without him? Doubtful - his design chromosomes are by now firmly entrenched in the DNA of Apple. By some reports, he leaves behind some 10 years of future projects we will see in the years to come. OS XI is a sure bet in a year or so. Apple flying cars, robots, spacecraft, who knows? Wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

RIP, Steve. Good job.

Mike Gould was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 2.2 Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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