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Design inspiration: Timeless design principles

Have you ever seen a product or piece of equipment that amazed you? Confounded you? Have you ever stood in a store aisle lingering over a product you don’t even need or intend to purchase, but admiring some aspect of its design just the same? Better yet: Have you, like me, had a salesperson look at you like you were crazy because you pointed out a deficiency in a product or service that apparently no one had ever mentioned before? Do you wonder how it was designed? Or why?

I am particularly impressed by modern cell phone design, having spent a vital part of my career designing those very devices at Motorola when they were (ahem) a bit larger. (Okay … when they were a lot larger.) Today they remain, to me, exemplars of elegant simplicity. Slim. Smooth. Practical – no, beyond that, absolutely minimal – in size. Although this was a lifetime ago for many readers, let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

Figure 1: Yes, this is a phone I worked on. It made – get this! – phone calls!

Figure 2: This is more like our phones today. Sometimes we use them to, ya know, make phone calls!

Which would you rather use? Can you even compare the two?

As a software user and consultant, I also apply these guidelines to webpages and software interfaces, a school of design you may hear referred to as UX – User Experience. Is this not an equally important aspect of product interaction? I am reminded of this every day as I consult with our SOLIDWORKS CAD customers, a product that owes much of its status to its pioneering interface. I recently had a product designer tell me, “It works as I think.” What a supreme compliment! And, I like to think that if I’ve done my job, I’ve removed the obstructions and let you focus on what you do best – design.

Elegant simplicity – I used those words a bit earlier. I am not sure who first paired those words but they come to mind when I see good design, or at least, a design that I admire. How do we define it? We’re all familiar with the 1964 Supreme Court ruling that came to the famous conclusion, “I shall not … attempt … to define [it]. But I know it when I see it.”

Consider this quote from designer and lecturer Wouter Stokkel:

“It’s art if it can’t be explained. It’s fashion if no one asks for an explanation. It’s design if it doesn’t need an explanation.”

So, perhaps that addresses the simplicity part of our equation. But what about the elegance? How much of a factor does beauty play in good design? Is being functional not enough? Indeed, it was Leonardo da Vinci who said:

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

But does a phone have to be beautiful? A car? A blender? A house? A machine? Ultimately, it was visionary inventor R. Buckminster Fuller that provides an aspirational creed:

“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

It’s ironic that we so easily overlook good design – when bad design so easily jumps out at us! And remember, in your search for more information don’t forget to seek out inspiration. The best designs are those that are so accepted they become invisible to us, and we designers stand on the shoulders of many who came before us. Let’s continue to look forward – and back!

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Sam helps customers increase productivity with solutions tailored to their unique needs. He has over 35 years of 3D CAD design experience, most notably designing cell phones for Motorola. Sam also created an in-house CAD training program and performed application support during his time at Motorola. He has also taught at the collegiate level and developed curriculum for local companies.

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