In another experiment in collaboration, we set up a series of global Rube Goldberg–type machines — virtual exercises in which each action had to trigger some other movement far away. In Palo Alto, a Tickle Me Elmo doll might nose-dive into a mouse, which would click on a print server in Shanghai, which would print out a piece of paper that knocked a ball off the printer, which would trigger a cell-phone signal in London. People had to work together across long distances to get these things to work.
S+B: How do these prototypes in collaboration pay off for you?
BROWN: We explicitly work in collaborative teams, across disciplines, and where possible across geographies, and it has paid off throughout our history. One common myth about design is that it’s the province of individually talented superstars who dream up wonderful ideas, and I don’t think that’s the case. I think it takes very talented teams to tackle complex ideas.
That doesn’t mean there’s no role for individual designers. I think designs for beautiful chairs or lovely wristwatches can often be conceived by an individual. The execution will still take an army of people. And to be honest, the vast majority of the design questions being asked today are very complex, and it takes a team to innovate, right from the moment of conception.
S+B: Especially when the end result is supposed to be simple.
BROWN: We absolutely believe in simplicity when it comes to the user experience. People can deal with only so much complexity, and even when they use relatively complex devices, they have to be introduced to those devices in clever and simple ways. The Macintosh in the 1980s and the Palm Pilot in the 1990s both started with a relatively limited functionality that grew over time, and the customers grew with them.
One of the reasons I love the Nintendo Wii is that conventional video games are incredibly intimidating. The amount of learning involved is beyond me. A devoted kid might be happy to go on that journey, but I’m not. The Wii reintroduced simplicity into gaming; for me and for many other people who wouldn’t have otherwise been interested, it’s been an accessible on-ramp into the field.
Simplicity in design comes from searching for places where people need an understandable relationship with the technology. Not every design solution has to be inherently simple. But the points of interaction often have to be simple to allow us to engage. The Sony PlayStation 3 is far more technologically advanced than the Wii, but it’s also too complex for many people.
The Future of Design Thinking
S+B: Is industrial society evolving toward better design?
BROWN: Absolutely. For example, automobiles perform much better than they did 20 years ago. But at the same time, humanity is churning out an awful lot of poorly designed and unnecessary stuff. Clearly, we’re going to see a period of massive growth in consumerism in places like China and India in the next 40 years. That will be great for those economies; people will have a better standard of living, they’ll be healthier, and they’ll communicate better. But managing that from a resource and emissions standpoint is another thing altogether; design will inevitably be a part of the solution, but very few people have begun to create the necessary products, services, and infrastructure.
As designers, we also continue to see a shift in focus from products to services and intangibles. But whereas manufacturers invest enormously in product design and the experiences that people have with products, most service industries don’t have much of an R&D or innovation tradition. Their R&D efforts go into infrastructure support services like telephone exchanges or financial algorithms, not into the customer experience. This situation will change, and that’s something to look forward to.