What The Telephone’s Unbeatable Functionality Teaches Us About Innovation

Single-mindedness is a virtue, both in products and in people.

What The Telephone’s Unbeatable Functionality Teaches Us About Innovation

With the closing of last week’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the world’s largest design fair, and the coming prospect of seeing yet another chair, another lamp, and another collection of intentionally mismatched glassware make its way to the featured section of blogs, magazines, and cocktail conversations, all I can keep thinking about is the land line telephone. Until all design works as well as that classic, all design is fashion.


Design might work much better if it were more single-minded.

In fact, I cannot think of anything that works as well or as consistently as the humble land line telephone: It is a magical thing that is much more amazing than the personal computer. This is a machine that you dial, talk into, and listen to, with someone on the other end who hears you perfectly on the other side of the world with nary a drop in service. If my memory serves me correctly, we have never been able to reproduce that level of excellence in anything else.

This is a great design. But is it because the telephone is single-minded? Because it does only one thing and does it right? Design and architecture might work much better if they too were more single-minded — in fact, we humans might work better if we were more single-minded. We must be like the telephone.

Design has become almost useless to mankind since so few people pursue single-mindedness as a foundational purpose, but would rather purposelessly chase multi-functionalism down a dark and long tunnel that may well lead to magazine covers, but to little else.

And this has caught on because of companies like Apple and Nike, which have earned their success through design. Steve Jobs does it right, famously saying, “Design is how it works, not how it looks,” but most firms copy his aesthetics and not his philosophy, applying design merely as marketing gloss in order to capture additional sales.

Unfortunately, that is a short-term, not to mention short-sighted, view. Design works when it enhances my life as a human being, not just when it enhances my consumerism. Ultimately, we end up resenting those brands that curve a corner to dishonestly catch our eyes, for they make us feel fooled and taken advantage of in the long term. The same goes for architecture. When we observe Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince Ramus’s design from the inside out, a space like his Seattle library starts to make sense as a way to look at what is needed of a library first, and it becomes a breath of fresh air in an industry rife with decorators.


[Image via LMN Architects, who served as the project architect]

As obvious as it might sound, “How do people read books?” was the first question on Koolhaas and Ramus’s long list, followed by: “Where do the reading rooms go” Where do the workstations go? How is the best way to lay it all out so that human beings in search of information may most easily go from one place to another and spend time finding knowledge, not situating themselves??

If you fancy yourself an artist, don’t make people suffer for your art.

Why not figure function out first and only then, clad the resulting shape in a suitable material? Sure, you might end up with something odd that some people might consider ugly or out of place or you might end up with something that some people might consider to be self-serving because its dodecahedron nature peculiarly stands out in an urban landscape laid out in square and rectangular shapes.


[Photo by Ramon Prat Courtesy OMA, via Arch Daily]

But as Ramus, said, “a truly rational building will not look rational.” The library is built from the inside out to serve man — this is an approach I understand and one I like. Unlike say, Frank Gehry’s cladding of all his work in the same sculptural shapes, which, if once reasonably interesting, is now ultimately self-serving, a decoration implemented seemingly exclusively in order to either prove something or to establish a legacy. That is a decorator’s job and less than useful to human kind; it is, however, useful to Frank Gehry. If you fancy yourself an artist, do not make people suffer for your art, simply offer it to them as a creative expression.


That said, there are some professions in which altruism is not, and should not be, part of the equation. Paths are chosen for personal reasons and should be free of any pressure to do or be good.

Designers should be preoccupied by such functional philanthropy.

Designers, however, have a task that is expressly defined by use, they should be, in my opinion, more preoccupied than most by such functional philanthropy. There is something about designing products and providing housing for humans that, at some level, must be compassionate and that must accommodate the needs of people.

If not, make art, engage people in conversations (controversial and otherwise), instead of attempting to house them. But when you are making a fork, why make it harder for it to pick into a bit of meat? Why make it harder for a plate to be washed? Why build obsolescence in an electronic product?


[Photo by Fernando Herrera Courtesy OMA, via Arch Daily]

I know, I know…because your designer’s brief within a capitalist system also calls for increased consumption and if the products you design last and/or are too useful, we will not buy any more, but keep what we have, longer, because it works better. Can you imagine that? A world in which every single product is made to the best quality standards available? The free market might crumble! So who can we blame for the systematic and willful abolition of daily quality? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? We are. We made this system what it is, we understood its rules, the sacrifices and rewards and we signed on the line: This is why we are here, sadly, to produce.


Let’s start making the things around us useful again. I think that needs to be the motivation of anyone getting behind that drawing table with a blank page on it. The result of which may not be water pumps for the Third World or homes for Habitat for Humanity or lives saved in the company of Doctors Without Borders, just that we must think not just about what we are doing but why we are doing, about use, even if that is a feeling or a conversation. Design and architecture’s goal need not be the proverbial best, too often erroneously advertised, but to make life, simply, almost poetically, better.


About the author

born in france, i chose to become a new yorker at the age of 20. after studying philosophy, theology, photography, and filmmaking at, respectively, the sorbonne, parsons school of design and new york university, and spending years dabbling in each, it came time to actually choose a profession