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Innovation & Design

What Size Fits All?

By sheer coincidence, the same day that Apple Computer (AAPL) announced its iPod Nano, I gave my first lecture of the term at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My topic: micro -- a unit of measurement that is exactly a thousand times bigger than nano.

I asked the simple question, "What is 'micro' about a microchip?" The jittery answer came, "Uh...micro means small?"

"Yes, small," I pressed, "but compared to what?" Which drew a blank because, I realized, this new generation of techies has never experienced refrigerator-size computers with vacuum tubes and miles of wiring. What once would have been an endless array of machines sitting in temperature-controlled rooms now fits into an unpretentious Chiclet-sized lozenge in the palm of my hand. "Small" is only "small" if you know what "big" is.

MORE, OR LESS? Today, a product's size is a marketable attribute, though not always in the conventional sense in which "bigger" means "better." Ask a child whether she'd like a big sundae or a small sundae, and the answer is still: "I want more." Ask people if they want a big cell phone or a little cell phone, and the answer is simple: "I want less."

An important thing happens when you make a large product small -- it becomes immediately less usable. Why? Well, aside from the physical limitations of our hands, decreasing size leaves less real estate to achieve a good design. Just as a smaller picture renders fewer details of an image, a smaller product allows fewer design details.

Got 10 large, sculpted buttons with clearly legible function labels on them? Fitting them into a 1-inch-square area will require using pinhead-size buttons and, oh, yes, the explanatory writing has to go! Keep in mind that a product that's already difficult to use in its "big" form won't be any easier to use when it's nano-fied.

FLEXIBLE TECH. Engineers love to make things smaller, both because it's a technical challenge and because it shows progress in an easily measurable form. With marketers aligned to the brand cachet of all that is tiny, we can expect more and more products to get the shrink treatment. Consumers, however, are desperate for products that are simpler and less complex.

But you can't make something small without making it intrinsically more confusing, due to the reduction in detail brought about by the reduction in size. Or can you? That's the core design challenge today. The answers will be found in the advancement of new materials that enable folding, stretching, and other on-demand deformability of objects to provide more space when needed.

In the "simplicity" program at MIT, we have the luxury of experimenting with Toshiba's (TOSBF) flexible LCD screen technologies to discover new ways of extracting more information from less space (see BW Online, 9/7/05, "Simplicity: The Goldilocks Rule"). Got too much display space? Just fold it up. Got too little? Just flatten it out. You're the one in control of when you want more, or less. That's true simplicity.

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