Dear Gadget Reviewers: You Don't Understand Beauty

An entirely new industry of quasi-professional reviewers has grown out of the Internet. And since most of these reviewers are preoccupied with consumer electronics (which is what I design), it hits me close to home. I am well aware of the importance of these many reviews as a public service and as a driver of our tattered economy. But beyond appreciating the variety and diversity of opinion offered, I can't say I like many of them. Why? Because none of these reviewers understand design.

When reviewers do feel a need to say something about design, it is usually shallow. Design is routinely mentioned as 'looking like' something else. It's 'sleek' or 'ugly'—but rarely anything in between.

adamo

Take Engadget. It's a daily staple for me. Engadget is the most energetic venue for hot technology objects, and it has become an influential actor in the design world as a result. I believe they started the "unboxing" ritual that has now become de rigueur for gadget reviewers. But when Engadget writers pay attention to design, they fail to say anything substantial. For example, Engadget covered Dell's amazingly thin Adamo XPS launch with full attention to teaser imagery, executive comments, and the obvious unboxing. Yet with all that fanfare, and the repeated comparisons to the rival Macbook Air, not much was said about the styling, configuration ("untraditional"!), and structure of this highly unusual notebook. The (very detailed) unboxing was the most disappointing, because here's what it had that to say about design: "For such a sleek device, the box it comes in is rather huge and bulky." That's all? C'mon guys, you can do better!

This dismissive, uninformed writing is not the modus operandi of the novices only. Some of the blame here should be directed at The Wall Street Journal's chief electronics reviewer Walt Mossberg. Mr. Mossberg has become a phenomenon, and for the right reasons: giving honest critique of objects we all consider essential. Mossberg gets a lot of things right—except beauty, fun, and that elusive 'got to have it' factor. You know, that factor that tells you to buy (and look at) the red dress? But his reviews have captured too much weight in the industry. And unfortunately, he has inspired a generation of reviewers to adopt the same subtle "geek rage" approach that he often exhibits in his columns.

chocTake for example CRAVE, CNET's answer to Engadget. In a post talking about LG's Chocolate Touch, they said: "The geometric shapes on the back of the phone and the blob-like buttons underneath the display are about the only things that are unique about the phone's design." Dear CRAVE editor, I am familiar with geometric shapes from kindergarten, as an adult I am now able to discuss geometry in some detail. Perhaps your writers could distinguish some of those fuzzy geometric forms and enlighten me with an explanation of their positive effect.

zireBut the worst are the 'looks like' comments, which are a double punch: It suggests some plagiarism while refusing to credit good design. Sometimes there are subtle similarities (we call them trends for a reason) and good designers have been known to arrive at the same conclusion from many miles away. In 2001, my firm designed the award- and market-winning Palm Zire. It came in white, silver, and blue covers. Still, reviewers often noted that it "looks like the iPod" even though it was designed before the iPod came to life. Being "like an iPod" is not bad for business, yet it just so happened that the product had a completely different form vernacular. What's more, it suggests that white has never been used by a designer outside of Apple. In fact, I designed several high-polished white kitchen appliances in the 90s, which shipped millions of units long before Apple introduced its first white product.

In the end, I am lucky. Designers never get mentioned—good or bad. The reviewers' view of design never causes them to look for the person behind the object's form, color, or architecture. Isn't this wonderful? Every napkin-folder catering to a Hollywood movie set will be noted in IMDB, yet the designers of those "sleek" or "ugly" objects never get mentioned.

But just in case one of the legion of tech reviewers out there would like to change things, here's a primer on what to look for when reviewing a product:

A. Ask about the heritage of the product, and its designer's intention. What were the constraints and difficulties built into getting the device to market? I am sure any questions will be answered at length, since I know how much my clients are ready to talk up their design investment.

B. Any "looks like" comment should be carefully dissected as a potentially defamatory remark. If I said your review looked like someone else's, it might be harmful to your reputation and career—the same is true for designers.

C. Show me! Imagery is so easy to find and so important when design is discussed. I can't believe how very little good imagery is shared with the public.

D. Give credit. Is it that difficult to find the name of a designer or at least a team of designers who worked on the product you're reviewing?

E. Don't underestimate your audience's knowledge of design. They go shopping just like you.

[Adamo photo, Engadget; Chocolate Touch photo, CRAVE]

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Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

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28 Comments

  • Raymond Durrant

    The reviewers also have to pay attention to the aesthetics of their own writing, which in the case of factual reports means it should be concise. Saying that something looks like something with which the reader is already familiar is a good way to convey a lot of information in a few words, although it could also be the sign of a lazy writer, if by doing so they gloss over important differences. Unless they use a formulation like 'suspiciously similar' or 'yet another product that looks like' or other loaded rematk, there is nothing even remotely defamatory about saying something is similar to something else. I also don't find it surprising that the reviewers only give a cursory remark to the shape and styling of a design when much more information can be conveyed by posting pictures: again, that would be redundant writing, and therefore poor style.
    I sympathise with your sentiments - as a designer of electronics, I sometimes get despondent about how people don't appreciate all the remarkable innovations which go into the gadgets they take for granted, but that's life. At least I have a job which I enjoy doing.

  • Scott Doty

    Designers are no longer solely concerned with the look of things. The best of design makes products easier and more comfortable to use in both a physical and cognitive sense. Yes, aesthetics is a valuable part of that. In cognitive scientist Donald Norman's recent writings he makes a case that beauty can have a positive effect on usability. To argue that business people [in the case of Fast Company] and gadget lovers [in the case of gadget blogs] would not be at all interested in design is clearly off base. A great device is a collaborative design effort between various divisions within a company.

  • Steve Portigal

    Interesting discussion. I agree this could be easily dismissed as "stop asking people to care about things that they clearly don't care about, just cuz YOU care about them." But I think there's something lurking here about the role of "design criticism" or "design writing." I mean, aren't we more educated consumers of films because of great writing? Sure, we need Yahoo Reviews to help get a handle on what the latest releases are about, but we also have some pretty amazing film critics now and in the past (say David Denby, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris) who create a thoughtful and enriched discourse about the thing they are criticizing: film. But I wouldn't ask Engadget or Fast Company to be the New Yorker film review of design. Instead, they are the Entertainment Weekly; thoughtful, knowledgeable, and accessible. Keeping us informed about design but not necessarily moving the cultural needle on literacy (I'd say FC has contributed to and engaged in the popularization of design and advocacy for design but not in developing a Gadi-level awareness - although the fact that Gadi has put this on Fast Company starts to challenge my hypothesis - I better stop before I nest another set of a parentheses).

  • Gadi Amit

    Hey, what a pile-up of love! ;-)

    Few thoughts:-
    A. The community around is actually more design-savvy than most think... that's the reason I would love the writers to give them more.

    B. Many gadgets are badly-designed, that's right. Probably because many on these products are not designed by Designers or being hacked by non-designers. Some are simply by bad designers... And that's the reason we should discuss design within that context - with that comes the need for some HIGH QUALITY discussion...

    Which leads me to my final point.

    C. The 'populist' notion of 'designers know nothing about real life' is so old, really old... and just an anti-cultural message. Very much like explaining a Chef he knows 'nothing about real food'.

  • Stevie

    A great post that really asks the journo or reviewer to say something salient about the design rather than just generally flog it. While not everyone might be design savvy, I am and I try to make relevant comments. Like on the Sony Vaio laptop, I hate the finger pad but wish it were a trackball instead. My HTC FUSE does lack some ability to go backwards easily when trying to login to twitter or Facebook and that the slider bar on the face of the screen to scroll down --while infinitely better than the iPhone -- doesn't always take you where you want to go.

    When I say sleek, I think slim, ergonomic and fast. When I think clunky, I think fat, slow and clumsy. It's like reviewing hair dryers. some are great, some are heavy, some aren't user friendly because the cord gets all tangled up.
    It's about stopping to think about the actual product and really trying to describe in layman terms what is right and wrong with the design and how it's used.

    If you get the design and don't like it-- say what and why. If it's because it's all about function and not even remotely great design or appearance.. then say that. To meI find my HTC servicable. I like Nokia's but then I like the looks of the iPhone, I just happen to hate the way it works (or doesn't work) and ATT because they can't provide good service.

    my 2 cents

  • Stevie

    A great post that really asks the journo or reviewer to say something salient about the design rather than just generally flog it. While not everyone might be design savvy, I am and I try to make relevant comments. Like on the Sony Vaio laptop, I hate the finger pad but wish it were a trackball instead. My HTC FUSE does lack some ability to go backwards easily when trying to login to twitter or Facebook and that the slider bar on the face of the screen to scroll down --while infinitely better than the iPhone -- doesn't always take you where you want to go.

    When I say sleek, I think slim, ergonomic and fast. When I think clunky, I think fat, slow and clumsy. It's like reviewing hair dryers. some are great, some are heavy, some aren't user friendly because the cord gets all tangled up.
    It's about stopping to think about the actual product and really trying to describe in layman terms what is right and wrong with the design and how it's used.

    If you get the design and don't like it-- say what and why. If it's because it's all about function and not even remotely great design or appearance.. then say that. To meI find my HTC servicable. I like Nokia's but then I like the looks of the iPhone, I just happen to hate the way it works (or doesn't work) and ATT because they can't provide good service.

    my 2 cents
    That's my humble 2 cents

  • Stevie

    A great post that really asks the journo or reviewer to say something salient about the design rather than just generally flog it. While not everyone might be design savvy, I am and I try to make relevant comments. Like on the Sony Vaio laptop, I hate the finger pad but wish it were a trackball instead. My HTC FUSE does lack some ability to go backwards easily when trying to login to twitter or Facebook and that the slider bar on the face of the screen to scroll down --while infinitely better than the iPhone -- doesn't always take you where you want to go.

    When I say sleek, I think slim, ergonomic and fast. When I think clunky, I think fat, slow and clumsy. It's like reviewing hair dryers. some are great, some are heavy, some aren't user friendly because the cord gets all tangled up.
    It's about stopping to think about the actual product and really trying to describe in layman terms what is right and wrong with the design and how it's used.

    If you get the design and don't like it-- say what and why. If it's because it's all about function and not even remotely great design or appearance.. then say that. To meI find my HTC servicable. I like Nokia's but then I like the looks of the iPhone, I just happen to hate the way it works (or doesn't work) and ATT because they can't provide good service.

    my 2 cents
    That's my humble 2 cents

  • Stevie

    A great post that really asks the journo or reviewer to say something salient about the design rather than just generally flog it. While not everyone might be design savvy, I am and I try to make relevant comments. Like on the Sony Vaio laptop, I hate the finger pad but wish it were a trackball instead. My HTC FUSE does lack some ability to go backwards easily when trying to login to twitter or Facebook and that the slider bar on the face of the screen to scroll down --while infinitely better than the iPhone -- doesn't always take you where you want to go.

    When I say sleek, I think slim, ergonomic and fast. When I think clunky, I think fat, slow and clumsy. It's like reviewing hair dryers. some are great, some are heavy, some aren't user friendly because the cord gets all tangled up.
    It's about stopping to think about the actual product and really trying to describe in layman terms what is right and wrong with the design and how it's used.

    If you get the design and don't like it-- say what and why. If it's because it's all about function and not even remotely great design or appearance.. then say that. To meI find my HTC servicable. I like Nokia's but then I like the looks of the iPhone, I just happen to hate the way it works (or doesn't work) and ATT because they can't provide good service.

    my 2 cents
    That's my humble 2 cents

  • Stevie

    A great post that really asks the journo or reviewer to say something salient about the design rather than just generally flog it. While not everyone might be design savvy, I am and I try to make relevant comments. Like on the Sony Vaio laptop, I hate the finger pad but wish it were a trackball instead. My HTC FUSE does lack some ability to go backwards easily when trying to login to twitter or Facebook and that the slider bar on the face of the screen to scroll down --while infinitely better than the iPhone -- doesn't always take you where you want to go.

    When I say sleek, I think slim, ergonomic and fast. When I think clunky, I think fat, slow and clumsy. It's like reviewing hair dryers. some are great, some are heavy, some aren't user friendly because the cord gets all tangled up.
    It's about stopping to think about the actual product and really trying to describe in layman terms what is right and wrong with the design and how it's used.

    If you get the design and don't like it-- say what and why. If it's because it's all about function and not even remotely great design or appearance.. then say that. To meI find my HTC servicable. I like Nokia's but then I like the looks of the iPhone, I just happen to hate the way it works (or doesn't work) and ATT because they can't provide good service.

    my 2 cents
    That's my humble 2 cents

  • Stevie

    A great post that really asks the journo or reviewer to say something salient about the design rather than just generally flog it. While not everyone might be design savvy, I am and I try to make relevant comments. Like on the Sony Vaio laptop, I hate the finger pad but wish it were a trackball instead. My HTC FUSE does lack some ability to go backwards easily when trying to login to twitter or Facebook and that the slider bar on the face of the screen to scroll down --while infinitely better than the iPhone -- doesn't always take you where you want to go.

    When I say sleek, I think slim, ergonomic and fast. When I think clunky, I think fat, slow and clumsy. It's like reviewing hair dryers. some are great, some are heavy, some aren't user friendly because the cord gets all tangled up.
    It's about stopping to think about the actual product and really trying to describe in layman terms what is right and wrong with the design and how it's used.

    If you get the design and don't like it-- say what and why. If it's because it's all about function and not even remotely great design or appearance.. then say that. To meI find my HTC servicable. I like Nokia's but then I like the looks of the iPhone, I just happen to hate the way it works (or doesn't work) and ATT because they can't provide good service.

    my 2 cents
    That's my humble 2 cents

  • Stevie

    A great post that really asks the journo or reviewer to say something salient about the design rather than just generally flog it. While not everyone might be design savvy, I am and I try to make relevant comments. Like on the Sony Vaio laptop, I hate the finger pad but wish it were a trackball instead. My HTC FUSE does lack some ability to go backwards easily when trying to login to twitter or Facebook and that the slider bar on the face of the screen to scroll down --while infinitely better than the iPhone -- doesn't always take you where you want to go.

    When I say sleek, I think slim, ergonomic and fast. When I think clunky, I think fat, slow and clumsy. It's like reviewing hair dryers. some are great, some are heavy, some aren't user friendly because the cord gets all tangled up.
    It's about stopping to think about the actual product and really trying to describe in layman terms what is right and wrong with the design and how it's used.

    If you get the design and don't like it-- say what and why. If it's because it's all about function and not even remotely great design or appearance.. then say that. To meI find my HTC servicable. I like Nokia's but then I like the looks of the iPhone, I just happen to hate the way it works (or doesn't work) and ATT because they can't provide good service.

    my 2 cents
    That's my humble 2 cents

  • Michael Martine

    There is nothing worse than designers whining about how the uneducated masses don't understand blah, blah, blah. Joshua Ledwell's comment above is priceless--I wish I had written it.

    You would have won over more people to your point of view if you had written a "how to review the design of consumer electronics like a pro" instead.

  • NoahRobischon

    I disagree with the "Joe Public" arguments being expressed here. Part of the role of a review - especially of a technology product - is to teach the reader about why they should care about it and what makes it innovative or worth buying. For example, a good gadget reviewer should not only tell you how many megapixels a digital camera has, but explain why megapixels alone are not a good way of evaluating picture quality. Without the reviewer, Joe Public would not know about this and would instead have only marketing and advertising that make megapixels seem like the most important feature of a camera.

    The same is true of design. The reader may not be able to articulate why an object appeals to them. It is part of the reviewers job to put words to that, and explain why the form of the product is as important as the functionality. If gadget reviewers were as lazy about the specs of these products as they are about the design, it would seem like a glaring omission.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Gadi.... there is a quick counterpoint to your post: Most gadgets are really badly designed. Either from a practical point of view or an aesthetic one.

    We "gadget writers" do get design, but in many cases the form and function of a gadget is *seriously* biased towards the function. What label would you apply to the Adamo's hinge? "Innovative"? That would fit, though I'm sure I could wax lyrical with a sentence or two on how it departs from the norm, represents a new line of thinking etc etc that would take up important print space on how the damn thing *works*. As far as the hinge itself goes, I'd say it's a triumph of design over utility--it looks bloody likely to break.

  • Barry Quinn

    Sorry about the multiple posting guys. No idea how that happened. Spinning wheel of death, and now no way that I can see for me to delete.

    Interesting turn of events on a Design blog. Perhaps it needs to be redesigned?

  • Barry Quinn

    Interesting read but I think it is less a story about Design and more a story about Media. While I agree the reviewers should know more about design and be able to speak to it intelligently, their first obligation is to their audience.

    I'm sure most movie directors feel the same way when they look at the 'entertainment and gossip magazines'. Sure there are the super star designers and they get a mention in SOME publications (Stark, Bangle etc), but likely not most.

    Most consumers who are reading the gadget press are likely interested in the 'tech', the functionality etc. It is a shame that they don't view design as a part of the engineering. But in fairness I have seen industrial design stories and awards given to products that have crap interfaces and bad consumer experiences and rarely do I see a mention of the people who coded the interfaces, or designed the engines etc.

    This is likely because we while we understand the products end use must be holistic in order to be useful, we also realize that we pick up a publication because of a very specific interest. In other words the writes of the stories are following their own very specific design brief.

  • Daniel Karpantschof

    I remember a great story. A 5 year old kid was handed a brand new Nokia. She already had a phone, but her sister worked with consumer tech, so she would from time to time get a new load of phones and gadgets.

    The kid fiddled with it for 45 seconds, put it on the table and went "nah, it's no good". Mind you, this is a brand new phone, not even launched on the market yet.

    The reason is of course that consumers today have a billion options for which product to use. Even when free. Why use something that you need to learn - shouldnt the producer of the device make it so damn easy and enjoyable for anyone to use that you HAVE to have the product?

    Guess what. Some do. Take the iPhone for example. Or the Blackberry. To very different products, but with respective ti both brands, they work, theyre easy to operate, alas one is from an aesthetics point of view more intuituve designed that the other.

    It's interesting reading a headline like this one, as it clearly misunderstands the function of design as well as reviewers.

    It basically just as dumb as a film director going "the audience misunderstood the point of the movie".

    If product reviewers (whom by and large today are any consumer with a blog - welcome to the 21st century) don't like your product... my guess is your product doesnt live up to snuff.

  • Joshua Ledwell

    Dear Industrial Designer: You Don't Understand Consumers. Reviewers mention what matters to their audience, and the '90s kitchen heritage of the white case you chose isn't on the list.

    Fine artists have curators clarifying their influences, and they can post an artist's statement to illuminate their gallery showing. Designers have to forego ego and do their best work even when they feel underappreciated.

  • Joshua Katinger

    Hate to break it to you Gadi...but they review things this way because that's how "Joe Public" looks at these objects. Comparing things to other things that we already know is a pretty common approach to describing stuff among the common man. I get frustrated in my line of work too because I focus on it all day long and I love it, whereas for most others its just another website...and they want it to work like Amazon.com. Alas, that is life my friend.