Theoretical design vs practical design

Tech Life

In a recent post on Google+, Raskin vs Jobs: Serious design vs selling design, Oliver Reichenstein, speaking of Jef Raskin and Steve Jobs’s different design approaches, draws a distinction between what he calls ‘serious design’ and ‘selling design’ and associates the former with Raskin and the latter with Jobs:

Half way through the Steve Jobs Biography, the biggest revelation for me so far is the clash between Raskin and Jobs. It’s a clash between serious design and selling design:

  1. Serious design does not necessarily sell well. That’s why it needs to be expensive to even exist.
  2. What sells is sentimentalism, nostalgia, solemnity—what sells is kitsch. That’s why kitsch can be so cheap. Because it sells so well.

That is true for any kind of design. And this is why iCal has this fucking leather surface that makes any user interface designer puke wet feverish dogs. And that’s why Apple has so much money in the bank. Not because of the mind blowing design of its hardware. (They always had the nicest hardware). But because people are sold through its nostalgic interface.

I usually follow Reichenstein’s contributions with interest and find them quite brilliant, but this piece strikes me as being rather rushed and superficial. From his distinction, it seems clear to me that he considers ‘serious’ design to be generally better than ‘selling’ design. While I may agree with the general sentiment, I find these two labels misleading.

Contrasting the concepts of ‘serious’ vs ‘selling’ sounds wrong to me, simply because there are examples of serious design that sells: household objects, pieces of furniture, cars, watches… Where by ‘serious design’ I mean something created and produced by professional people, and where the amount of thought that went into the object is evident just by looking at things such as execution, attention to detail, functionality, usability. Macintosh hardware in general, but especially recently, seems to me another example of serious design that sells. But perhaps Reichenstein means something else with that ‘serious’ label.

As regards to the Raskin vs Jobs example, I think that a better, maybe even fairer distinction in their approaches would be calling such differences as an opposition between theoretical design and practical design. Raskin’s idea for the first Macintosh, for instance, was conceptually fascinating and full of thoughtful interface considerations, but I always found it lacking in practicality and somewhat short-sighted by favouring a conservative approach in some technical aspects of the Macintosh design. As Andy Hertzfeld recalls:

There’s no doubt that Jef was the creator of the Macintosh project at Apple, and that his articulate vision of an exceptionally easy to use, low cost, high volume appliance computer got the ball rolling, and remained near the heart of the project long after Jef left the company. He also deserves ample credit for putting together the extraordinary initial team that created the computer, recruiting former student Bill Atkinson to Apple and then hiring amazing individuals like Burrell Smith, Bud Tribble, Joanna Hoffman and Brian Howard for the Macintosh team. But there is also no escaping the fact that the Macintosh that we know and love is very different than the computer that Jef wanted to build, so much so that he is much more like an eccentric great uncle than the Macintosh’s father.

Jef did not want to incorporate what became the two most definitive aspects of Macintosh technology — the Motorola 68000 microprocessor and the mouse pointing device. Jef preferred the 6809, a cheaper but weaker processor which only had 16 bits of address space and would have been obsolete in just a year or two, since it couldn’t address more than 64Kbytes. He was dead set against the mouse as well, preferring dedicated meta-keys to do the pointing.

I also disagree with other statements by Reichenstein. He writes: What sells is sentimentalism, nostalgia, solemnity — what sells is kitsch. I’d say that what sells is something that works, something both visually appealing and that is functional as expected. And, unlike Reichenstein, I think that Apple is selling a lot exactly because its devices now best represent that mix of ‘visually appealing’ and ‘functional as expected’, but it’s the “blowing design of its hardware” that first strikes the regular customer, not the ‘nostalgic interface’, which incorporates blatant skeuomorphic elements only in some parts of the UI — parts that users have to discover, and that aren’t thrown in their face as soon as they start a Mac or an iPad. There is nothing I find particularly nostalgic in the Finder or in most system applications. Skeuomorphism, especially in the Mac OS X user interface, appears to me mostly as the exception, not the rule.

That’s why I think the iCal example in Reichenstein’s piece is a bit misplaced. I don’t believe for a second that Apple sells a lot because people love iCal’s leather theme. Actually, most Mac users I know personally are annoyed by interface quirks like iCal’s leather, and I’m talking about people who aren’t designers or power users or even long-time Mac users. The skeuomorphic, nostalgic elements in Apple’s interface design are more like secondary details you find included in the whole design package, not the main reason you get that package in the first place.

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