[This is the second in a two-part series, read the first part here. — Eds]
When designers create machines, they need to make sure that the visceral parts of the product have an internal logic ? that the hardware, software, user-interface, and so on work together seamlessly and efficiently. But designers also strive for an external logic ?- a machine language that tells a story of the makeup of the object, the right use of material, process, form, and detail. The goal is to create the right harmony between the object’s inner logic and its external one.
This inner-outer machine language drives both the guts and the enclosure around them. Such clarity and purity is the hallmark of every design classic, be it the Mini car of the ?60s or the Aeron chair of the ?90s.
Dedication to the object’s logic is essential as we try to create a more sustainable future and a more effective design culture. It defines the beauty of the object, its proper use, and its manufacturing. The kernel of this machine language is simple craftsmanship. Forms and materials have innate ways of behaving. They are created in a certain way; they want to stay in a certain state and they fall into place in certain order.
This innate character is an integral part of our history and culture. We have a collective memory of “good” or “bad” uses of form, process, material, and details.
Apple’s iPod Shuffle is a wonderful use of classic extrusion manufacturing techniques. It is pure and strong due to its simplicity. That simplicity is understood by anyone who eats pasta. Yves Behar’s Sayl chair for Herman Miller is a beautiful example of applying a familiar suspension-bridge logic to the age-old dilemma of supporting the human back. These examples communicate both the functional and the aesthetic logic of the object ? an excellent “machine language” that is apparent to anyone.
However, sometimes designers go overboard, misusing a process and over-designing an object. I admire a lot of Apple’s work, but because it is such a hallmark of design excellence, it’s important to note some questionable use of material and process.
The iMac is the most beautiful PC out there. Nevertheless, its highly polished curvy back is a form craving for other materials or process -? maybe stamped sheet — metal, possibly layered carbon-fiber or simply plastic. Instead it is milled from a massive chunk of aluminum thinned to less than a millimeter. Such a process is amazingly wasteful of aluminum, a material that requires much electricity to refine. Recycling won’t help here since reprocessing and refining 95 percent of the material is also enormously wasteful. Machine language is violated here. The iMac’s stretch-membrane form is completely alien to massive metal milling.
Then there’s Apple’s use of a unibody structure on its MacBooks and iPad. These are exquisite objects of precision and elegance. I own a few. But I wonder: Does the functional goal justify the design means? Is the external beauty aligned with the inner one? As Apple aimed for structural rigidity and a thinner profile, it opted for a process that has merits and drawbacks. The notebook is exceptional, solid as a rock, and perfectly polished from the outside. But maybe a screen can be flexible? Maybe a lighter, less rigid object is just as perfect? And should a milled object look different from a stamped one?
A few years back Sony created the Vaio X505 laptop. Although it never achieved serious market success, it was influential among the in-the-know. It’s the anti-MacBook in its approach to material and rigidity?and it’s beautiful in its own way. Probably the first super-thin Laptop, the X505 was stunning in its wafer-thin body and elegant proportions. It had a flexible screen body and razor-edge front. Arguably, it was one of the most advanced integrations of laptop construction ever. Sony’s approach was the opposite of Apple’s and just as effective.
Clearly, brilliant designers deal with rigidity, precision, and thinness in their own ways. Yet Sony’s exterior appearance had qualities more true to its material use. Apple’s, on the other hand, is using milling without revealing so from the outside. The MacBook’s exterior design is nearly alien to the use of process and material. It’s a bit like a V12 engine block hidden inside a wrapping of a jewel-box. They’re both beautiful objects yet quite different in vernacular. Couldn’t it be wonderful if the character of the milling was exposed to the outside? The cutting tool marks paint magical paths inscribing an inner code of a magical thinking-machine?the machine language of milling, exposed, intricate, and beautiful. It is revealing that Apple’s Jonathan Ives described the MacBook‘s unibody as “in many ways” internally more beautiful than externally.?
Read part one: The Darwinian Business of Designing Machines