I was shopping for laptops recently, and was shocked by how difficult it was to find a reasonably priced model with a comfortable keyboard and trackpad, and a front edge that was wrist-friendly. The experience made me wonder why so little attention seemed to be being paid to such a fundamental aspect of the product.
Why don’t ergonomics have more sex appeal? Shouldn’t a well-designed physical interfacing of human and built object be one of the most valued aspects of design? While in truth ergonomics are interwoven (or should be) with aesthetics and materials, our excitement seems to gravitate towards how things look and feel, or cleverness of concept, rather than how well they work with us.
A quick read through this recent interview with Jonathan Ive on Core77 reveals a worshipful discussion of iPhone 4 materials.
It is this sort of materials obsession and constant experimentation that led to a decision to use scratch-resistant aluminosilicate glass for the front and back of the phone, as well as developing their own variant of stainless steel to edge the device.
I had to travel all the way back to 2007 to find someone talking specifically about a sexy merger of design and ergonomics/usability.
Is it that when ergonomics work, they are invisible? That they generally succeed by creating an absence of negative experience, but don’t extend into the realm of pleasure creation, where they might generate more attention?
Dieter Rams’ “weniger, aber besser (less, but better)” design philosophy – and indeed Jonathan Ive’s as well – heads in a similar direction – the absence of superfluous elements, but yet we still find it sexy.
Perhaps part of the picture is the lack of sex appeal that discussions of ergonomics tend to have. Is this an issue of professional culture? What is more important than objects that – never mind giving us pleasure – at the very least don’t injure us? Maybe that’s it – it’s too serious an aspect of design to engender the fun spirit we find in aesthetics?
The movie Waterworld (one of a handful of movies-most-people-think-are-bad that I like), while over the top and mostly quite silly, nicely illustrates the balletic relationship of person and object that good ergonomics make possible, as Kevin Costner’s character Mariner single-handedly sails and otherwise operates his boat throughout the film. The boat’s steampunk aesthetic won’t be for everyone, but it’s perfectly designed to work with the needs of its user, and to me there’s something really sexy about that.