Effective print design is laconic: no wasted ink; less is always more. A good designer can communicate a stunning amount of information with surprisingly few tools. Design is pervasive in our media-centric culture, and subsequently we are constantly absorbing information via color, line, shape and symbol. Likewise is technology pervasive. From cell phones, to handhelds, to PCs–technology has become a permanent and essential tool in our society.
But the way in which we interact with technology has yet to fully evolve; the connection often remains sterile and detached. The potential to improve this relationship lies with designers.
For starters, we need to acknowledge the lingering disconnect between print and tech design. The same minimalist ethos that drives effective print media seems lost amid a sea of bad websites and unwieldy technology.
First, the bad websites:
Affordable publishing software has enabled a host of amateur web designers to enter the fray. The benefits of empowering individuals to express themselves on the web are undeniable–indeed this is the living, breathing heart of the information revolution. What these recreational desktop publishers do to advance design, however, is questionable. With so many untrained hands at the helm, proper design is at risk of being run aground.
Now, the unwieldy technology:
Technology, by definition, is an enabler: it makes our lives easier, better, or both. Without thoughtful design, however, technology only partly lives up to its definition. An example: Multi-purpose cell phones. In theory, they enable you to talk, calculate an 18% tip, take pictures and videos, and surf the web. But what these phones gain in potential functionality, they lose in actual utility: you can’t use the calculator while you’re talking; the pictures are low-res; the videos are sub-par; and the web access is slow and requires very small, nimble fingers. Why not design a phone that, instead of all the bells and whistles, gets crystal-clear reception everywhere?
The desire to pack a lot of functionality into a little package is tempting primarily because we can: technology gets continually smaller and faster. The exponential growth in circuitry described by Moore’s Law (which celebrated its 40th anniversary in April), has outpaced a concomitant understanding of how to humanistically design these extra circuits into our lives. The drive to harness technology’s full potential should be tempered with restraint and good design.
Consider the iPod. Its success has little to do with Apple’s unique or cutting-edge technology–it’s a hard drive with earphones. iPod is successful because it conveys a big idea with what are essentially Kindergarten shapes: a rectangle and two concentric circles. By limiting functionality, the designers create a sleeker user experience and clearly articulate the product’s identity and purpose.
This approach is the type that will humanize our relationship with technology. But how do we get there?
Ironically, the same advances that spawned an onslaught of poorly designed webpages also create the opportunity for systemic change. Technology has crossed a critical threshold. Just as you don’t need to know HTML to create a website, you no longer need assembly code or binary math to approach tech development. The pieces are out there, we just need to put them together. Instead of viewing technology as something to design around, we should design with it, engaging technology not as a mechanic uses tools, but as an artist uses paint.
Interacting with technology shouldn’t be taxing for the user–it should be fluid and intuitive. Good print design communicates ideas this way; doing the same in technology design requires but one courageous tweak in the way we embrace the medium. The time is ripe for a shift in paradigm.