Innovation & Design

Simplicity: The Goldilocks Rule


"You'll Never Become a Designer"

I was gifted from an early age in both art and mathematics,

though my immigrant father acknowledged only my math skills.

So off I went to MIT to study computer science. After completing

a few degrees, I shifted gears and went to art school -- and

somehow, years later, ended up among the pioneering designers

of the digital domain. Along the way, I have tried to understand

the word "design" and now, as a professor at the MIT Media Lab,

to make design relevant to a non-art-school audience.

"Design Is Not Art"

One hears this assertion often in all kinds of forms, from casual

conversation to museum exhibitions like the recent "Design Is

Not Art" show at the National Design Museum. Thus, for the

nondesigner, understanding the field of design is often a

daunting task as it requires understanding what "art" is -- or

least, what is "not art."

As a result, we see today that "design" has become a convenient

buzzword, especially in the business world, to describe the

process of creating objects and experiences that consumers will

flock to, drawn by the power of design. But what exactly is this

power?

In this series of columns, I will lay out the philosophy of design

that I've developed at MIT in a way that, I hope, sheds light on

design for the business community.

Forest in the Foreground

On a recent vacation hike in

Maine, I

noted that the trails were marked with rectangles of bright blue

paint. Each of the trails was

highly navigable due to its good

condition, but once in a while I would pause and wonder, "Where

do I go next?" And almost like magic one of these blue markers

that previously sat in the background of my perceptual field

literally "popped" into the foreground.

With my bearings restored, I would slowly return to the

beautiful, uninterrupted forest vistas with the emotional

satisfaction and comfort that one has when they experience

great design.

If the forest were covered with 10 times the number of blue

markers I had seen on my hike, the probability of my getting lost

would certainly be reduced. One could imagine the markers

organized in some more symbolic shape -- say a real arrow,

instead of a cryptic linear marker.

And if we wish to go that far, why not just paint the more

explicit text, "this way," on the rocks in 100-point Helvetica so

there's no ambiguity whatsoever? Yet at some point, with the

successive addition of more sophisticated elements, the true

value of the untainted forest suddenly vanishes.

Design is, to some extent, about prioritizing the foreground

experience, but providing a low-energy means of gently shifting

focus to the background whenever the greater context of an

activity might matter more than the activity itself. Once you have

properly situated yourself, you're free to get lost in the

foreground experience again. What's wrong with getting lost

anyway?

Simplicity

The key is to provide the hiker, the user, or the viewer with

enough -- but not too much -- information. At MIT, I've started

a research program on "simplicity" as a first

step towards enabling the greater fusion between design

thinking and industry, specifically the technology industry.

I believe that central to any discussion of design is the careful

balance that must be met between simplicity and complexity,

and the consortium of technology-focused companies and

innovative MIT Media Lab researchers are the perfect

breeding ground for the next generation of realistic design

concepts.

Together, we're defining the business value of simplicity and the

design tenets that will help achieve it. For instance, giving users

just enough -- but not too much -- information creates a rich

experience.

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