By Fraser Scott (for designindustry Limited)

Published in the Christchurch Press, 5 October 2005.


In the movie Contact, Jodie Foster's character stumbles upon a spacecraft design blueprint transmitted by benevolent (for once) extra-terrestrials. The NASA engineers tasked with building the spacecraft feel it lacks a few bells and whistles (such as a seat for the pilot) and so add in a few features of their own. When Jodie Foster is eventually hurled through space and time, the extra features are shown to be not only unnecessary, but actually quite detrimental to the craft's operation. Thankfully the add-ons break off from the space-ship and Jodie Foster meets the aliens. Oddly though, ET is the splitting image of her Dad and her whole trip might actually be a dream. It all gets a bit weird about here, but let us not deviate from the point.

Much of the beauty and skill in design focuses on what is left out, rather than what is tacked on. From Audrey Hepburn's look to the design of the hot air balloon, restraint and simplicity are key in the creation of good design.

Like great art, great design knows when to stop; when to put the brush down, stand back and say that's just about right. But all too often, designers get carried away and keep adding little flourishes until the end results look more like the product of a child's paintbox than a great artist's palette.

Ever owned a product that sported dozens of features but you only ever used one or two? Ever found that all those additional gimmicks actually detracted from the core purpose of what the product was meant to do? When you answered these two questions were you thinking about a cellphone?

It seems unfair to pick on the design of the poor old cellphone; like poking fun yet again at Helen Clark's airbrushed election billboards. Yet such oft-repeated critiques are not without cause.

Cellphones have, since the eighties, been platforms for big companies to showcase the latest technologies their R and D labs have dreamed up. More and more cellphones are crammed with web browsers, calendars, camera applications and games. Cellphones have become technological Swiss army knives. But the fact of the matter is, most of us just want to look up a number and call someone. Confronted as we are with the cornucopia of buttons, icons, and other assorted shiny things, many amongst us find ourselves suffering feature fatigue and the outbursts of anger and frustration that accompany it. Why, we ponder, can they not just produce a cellphone that does the basics?

In fact, Vodafone has recently done this very thing. In a stripped down Sagem phone called appropriately - the Simply, Vodafone has tossed out the cameras, games and other extraneous features and instead created a cellphone that more or less just makes calls. It also displays your cellphone number to help you avoid the embarrassment of admitting you don't know your own number when asked.

And it is very likely that we will see more and more of this deconstruction. Smart service and product designers are waking up to the reality that our lives are busy, our heads are full and our tempers frayed. Sometimes we don't want to read the manual to figure it out. We don't want to have to insert Tab B in Slot A. We aren't interested in the optional dough-kneading attachment. And the shiny metallic finish is just a bit too much. Sometimes we just want simplicity.

Let's revisit the hot air balloon. In 1783 the Montgolfier brothers, clearly unconcerned with the ethics of animal testing, sent a sheep, a duck and a chicken gently drifting over Paris in the first hot air balloon. Within a few months they had refined their design to the point where it differs very little from the balloons that we see today. There was, of course, the wee matter of the more advanced and less simple Zeppelins. Although history would suggest that new technologies rendered the Zeppelin irrelevant, perhaps adding highly flammable hydrogen gas to the design was not that smart a move. Certainly the image of the Hindenburg falling from the sky in flames did little to reassure the travelling public that dirigibles were the way to go.

The designindustry design principle of simplicity suggests that a good design is the most simple solution to the problem. Take the Zespri Spife for example. Designed as a combination spoon and knife for eating kiwifruit the Spife is a small tear-drop shaped plastic spoon with a serrated edge. You use the edge to cut the fruit, then use the spoon part to eat the flesh. The Spife could have been much more complicated, requiring little instructional diagrams, and perhaps with two hinged elements or a moulded handle, but the final design is simple, inexpensive, easy to use, and actually quite cool-looking.

Deploying this principle in business is about identifying the problem or need of the customer and thinking of the least complicated way to solve it. This does not mean extra features are not made available, but they must not distract or detract from core purpose. Keeping it simple means lower development costs and lower production or provision costs. It can also mean lower costs of warranty repairs and higher customer satisfaction.