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.
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.
Take 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.
But 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]
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.