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How Do We Work with the Machines?

Now that nearly every household object employs complex electrical inner workings, the importance of simplified interfaces is paramount.


Now that nearly every household object employs complex electrical inner workings concealed by a decorative skin, the importance of simplified interfaces is paramount. This new age of consumer electronics can be readily understood as one of the first moments in history in which invention and design were truly married, aligning function with experience.For better or worse, some products that have shaped our world have resulted not from designing for man's best interest, but from simple necessity. Take the layout of the English keyboard, commonly referred to as QWERTY. Long before the advent of the user interface, Christopher Sholes (who invented the modern typewriter in the 1860s) had a problem; as he perfected his invention, he noticed that with an alphabetical arrangement of the keys, neighboring key bars activated in rapid succession were becoming entangled with one another. To mitigate the problem, he rearranged the keys so as to separate the most common letter pairings. The redesign proved successful and the typewriter hammered itself into history.But it turns out that the QWERTY keyboard is rather inefficient. Nearly 70 years later, Dr. August Dvorak, having methodically studied the physiology of typists, came up with an alternative arrangement aimed at alleviating fatigue and increasing productivity. The new keyboard setup, dubbed the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, has been recognized in many circles as superior, yet QWERTY lingers to this day, largely because of the logistical and financial nightmare of replacing the world's keyboards.The QWERTY keyboard was designed to prevent typewriters from jamming when common letter pairings were struck in rapid succession. Eventually, computing will conceal mechanics entirely. Indeed, user interfaces now deal largely with the virtual. While Apple's new iPhone evinces little change in form from the conventional cell phone, its interactive software represents a radical leap forward. Then again, some conventions just can't be shaken-the iPhone's keypad uses a QWERTY layout, after all.-BRIAN FICHTNER

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The grandfather of modern product design is Dieter Rams, a legendary figure who led the design department at Braun electronics for more than 40 years. Credited with making the home stereo a decorative object of desire, his puritanical approach to design was evident in a rational, standardized program in which early products were offered in only white or gray, and all buttons and switches were tightly organized and color-coded only when necessary. The language was so precise that, even today, looking at his SK4 series of record players, or the regie 308 control unit, a user can intuit its controls.Recent decades have introduced computing into nearly every object we touch, creating entirely new systems of thought and symbol-based languages. Champions of Rams's design tenet-"less but better"-have met these challenges with admirable results.

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Jasper Morrison's designs for Rowenta and Olivetti appear to have evolved directly from the Braun legacy. His Linea office printer deploys mere lines and curves to describe the interface, also reducing visual clutter in a chaotic office environment.

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Naoto Fukasawa's products are examples of how reductive forms can produce an instinctive user experience. His wall-mounted CD player for Muji plays upon our collective memory; pull on the hanging cord (as you would a ceiling fan) and the CD starts playing through the integrated speaker.

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Jonathan Ive's tenure at Apple has brought consumers the most celebrated objects of our time. The iPod series represents a significant advancement in mobile media, but this iconic design may owe part of its success to a lesser-known predecessor; it would not be fallacious to note its similarities to the Braun model T3 pocket radio from 1958. Petter's pick:Like other rushed New Yorkers, I've stared down the tunnel looking for the beams of light or listening for that tick in the rail announcing an upcoming train. The scurrying rats are also a telltale sign that something is coming down the tracks. Thanks to the new LED screens displaying the arrival time of the next two trains on the platform of the L train to and from Brooklyn, I now know before the rodents do. That's progress.-PETTER RINGBOM
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