"You'll Never Become a Designer"
I was gifted from an early age in both art and mathematics,
though my immigrant father acknowledged only my math skills.
So off I went to MIT to study computer science. After completing
a few degrees, I shifted gears and went to art school -- and
somehow, years later, ended up among the pioneering designers
of the digital domain. Along the way, I have tried to understand
the word "design" and now, as a professor at the MIT Media Lab,
to make design relevant to a non-art-school audience.
"Design Is Not Art"
One hears this assertion often in all kinds of forms, from casual
conversation to museum exhibitions like the recent "Design Is
Not Art" show at the National Design Museum. Thus, for the
nondesigner, understanding the field of design is often a
daunting task as it requires understanding what "art" is -- or
least, what is "not art."
As a result, we see today that "design" has become a convenient
buzzword, especially in the business world, to describe the
process of creating objects and experiences that consumers will
flock to, drawn by the power of design. But what exactly is this
In this series of columns, I will lay out the philosophy of design
that I've developed at MIT in a way that, I hope, sheds light on
design for the business community.
Forest in the Foreground
On a recent vacation hike in
noted that the trails were marked with rectangles of bright blue
paint. Each of the trails was
highly navigable due to its good
condition, but once in a while I would pause and wonder, "Where
do I go next?" And almost like magic one of these blue markers
that previously sat in the background of my perceptual field
literally "popped" into the foreground.
With my bearings restored, I would slowly return to the
beautiful, uninterrupted forest vistas with the emotional
satisfaction and comfort that one has when they experience
If the forest were covered with 10 times the number of blue
markers I had seen on my hike, the probability of my getting lost
would certainly be reduced. One could imagine the markers
organized in some more symbolic shape -- say a real arrow,
instead of a cryptic linear marker.
And if we wish to go that far, why not just paint the more
explicit text, "this way," on the rocks in 100-point Helvetica so
there's no ambiguity whatsoever? Yet at some point, with the
successive addition of more sophisticated elements, the true
value of the untainted forest suddenly vanishes.
Design is, to some extent, about prioritizing the foreground
experience, but providing a low-energy means of gently shifting
focus to the background whenever the greater context of an
activity might matter more than the activity itself. Once you have
properly situated yourself, you're free to get lost in the
foreground experience again. What's wrong with getting lost
The key is to provide the hiker, the user, or the viewer with
enough -- but not too much -- information. At MIT, I've started
a research program on "simplicity" as a first
step towards enabling the greater fusion between design
thinking and industry, specifically the technology industry.
I believe that central to any discussion of design is the careful
balance that must be met between simplicity and complexity,
and the consortium of technology-focused companies and
innovative MIT Media Lab researchers are the perfect
breeding ground for the next generation of realistic design
Together, we're defining the business value of simplicity and the
design tenets that will help achieve it. For instance, giving users
just enough -- but not too much -- information creates a rich