Frog Design MindS



[Eds. Note: Even if you have never heard of frog design, you are undoubtedly familiar with the company's enormously influential design work—the Sony Trinitron TV, Logitech's QuickCam Fusion, AT&T's first digital answering machine, the Apple IIC and NeXT Box. This is the first in a series of frog's Design Mind columns that will appear every Monday on Gizmodo.]

The iPod and the Bathtub: How Products Shape Our Perceptions



By Luke Williams

Imagine your cell phone as a person. How would you describe him / her? Playful; Charismatic; Dull; Unreliable; Clean? The products we surround ourselves with all carry messages, and our perceptions are significantly shaped by their form, materials, and color.

A Designer sprang into the frog New York studio the other morning with a little more energy than usual.

I know why everyone says the iPod looks clean!
he exclaimed.

The iPod has become—in the minds of most of our clients—the example of great product design. We found ourselves constantly trying to figure out why everybody we asked perceived the iPod as being
clean.

Of course, we were aware of the obvious cues such as minimalist design; the simple, intuitive interface; the neutral white color. But these attributes alone inadequately explain this seemingly universal perception. It had to be referencing a deeper convention in the social consciousness
so, if a designer claimed that he had the answer—we were all ears.

So
as I was sitting on the toilet this morning
(this is of course where most good ideas come from),
I noticed the shiny white porcelain of the bathtub and the reflective chrome of the faucet on the wash basin
and then it hit me! Everybody perceives the iPod as
clean
because it references bathroom materials!

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This insight becomes more interesting considering the designer responsible for the iPod
Jonathan Ive, VP of Industrial Design, came to Apple from a London-based design consultancy where he worked on a
wide range of products from power tools to wash basins.

Coincidence? Perhaps. What
s important is that consciously or unconsciously, the iPod materials reference a convention of
cleanliness
that everybody interacts with everyday— a bathroom. We
re talking about human perception, and the system of conventions that shape our perceptions. Perception is essential to the process of design.

Conventions Applied to Design

Historically, designers and manufacturers have made interesting use of conventions in design to alter the way people perceive products. The public once thought electricity was dangerous and expensive, so to change this perception, the electricity industry sought to project the image of electricity as a modern and progressive source of energy. To symbolize these qualities, designers used the conventions associated with
technological futurism
—chrome plating and streamlining. In 1955, industrial designer Henry Drefuss wrote that changes in the design of the modern kitchen had been brought about
by two things that had nothing to do with cooking a meal—the automobile and the airplane.

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Although the symbolism has changed, the iPod also uses conventions to appear ahead of its time. Its surfaces are seamless and have no moving parts— two conventions that have often been used in science and science-fiction to connote advanced technology. Remember the seamless, molten-metal bad guy in Terminator 2? Or how about the perfectly seamless, black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Have you ever picked up a product and thought,

that feels cheap?
Observations of the marketplace will reveal many conventions relating to perceived value. For example, Puma shoes are tiered according to price and the application of materials is different through the tiers. As the shoes move up through the tiers, the materials become more authentic (e.g. natural leather). As the shoes move down through the tiers, synthetic materials dominate.

Conventions are often so self-evident and seemingly
natural
that we have a hard time recognizing them. But being sensitive towards conventions will give you a new appreciation of why you love or hate the products in your life. That said, try not to think of a toilet every time you use your iPod nano.

Luke Williams is a Design Manager for frog design
s New York Studio.

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