Lightness -- a design direction for everyday life

19 June 2011

A sense of lightness is what I appreciate most in the designs that I enjoy. It’s what I strive to create in my own work too.

In our increasingly frenetic world, things that let you do what you want to do with the minimum of obstruction, frustration and delay are needed more than ever. Like Don Norman’s invisible computer, this is design that all but disappears when you use it. It gets out of your way and defaults to shutting up. Its sophistication is not in trying to be smart, much less in trying to be impressive or entertaining. It’s subtle, humble and discreet, working in the service of you the user rather than trying to draw attention to itself. Most of all it is design as our servant rather than our master.

Dieter Rams says:

Never forget that a good product should be like a good English butler. They’re there for you when you need them, but in the background at all other times. Besides a few millionaires in London, most of us don’t have butlers.

The butlers of today are our products and our furniture.

Lightness can be measured as value for effort. The less effort you need to expend in learning, maintaining and satisfying the product you’re using for a given amount of genuine benefit the better. If you’re flying through the things you want to do without obstruction, that’s lightness. If it feels like you’re wading through treacle, that’s not.

Lightness is an imperative. We’ve got better things to do than to perform incantations and rituals just to take care of the mundane details of everyday life. Our energies should be directed towards curing the world’s ills, being with our families and making sense of it all, not coaxing printers to print, navigating endless telephone menus and jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Life is far too short to be a slave to a system or to a machine.

Here are a few examples of things that embody lightness, to a degree at least:

Gmail was revolutionary when it first launched. Aside from a generally slick user interface, the two features that really struck me as important were a huge storage quota for your mail and effective spam filtering. Being liberated from having to worry about whether you were running out of space for your mail really changed the way that people thought about webmail. It also led to other webmail providers following suit by increasing their quotas too. Removing 99.5% of spam from your inbox was another relief. Spam is something entirely incidental to what users want from email. Gmail showed that the spam problem was a solvable one, at least at the user’s end. Gmail is light because it lets you focus on your mail rather than the things – storage space and spam – that other systems forced you to think about just to be able to do your mail.

First Direct is a phone and web-only bank. It’s open around the clock, so you never have to worry about opening hours if you want to call. First Direct’s service is so resilient that it has been continuously available since it launched in 1989. When they say they’re always open, they mean always. First Direct is light because it fits itself to the customer rather than the other way around. The customer doesn’t have to memorise or look up opening hours. Customers can get on with their lives, knowing that they can always phone their bank in any spare moment they happen to have. The idea of 24-hour service doesn’t seem so strange in the age of the Internet but First Direct were well ahead of the game with building a very different relationship with their customers than was traditional in retail banking.

Dyson DC35 vacuum cleaner

Dyson’s DC35 is a rechargeable vacuum cleaner that’s optimised for mobility. Which is more convenient – plugging in your cleaner when you’re using it or plugging it in when you’re not? The DC35 is both slim and light so it’s not a burden to carry the DC35 up stairs or around the house. The lightness of the DC35 comes from its literal light weight. It’s a physical product that you use while moving, so the lighter the better. Cleaning becomes a quick and effortless job rather than a tiring chore.

In urban design, decluttering aims to remove unnecessary and obstructive street furniture from pedestrians' paths. Decluttering advocates like Living Streets reject the idea that pedestrians can and should be funnelled around a city like vehicles in the name of safety. People like to follow their desire lines, taking the most direct route from one place to another without having to negotiate a maze of barriers, bollards, cobbles and kerbs. A decluttered street is light because it removes physical obstructions and reduces delays and pinch points, leading to a sense of freedom of movement.

A webmail service, a bank, a vacuum cleaner, a street. These aren’t the kinds of things that many people would think of as requiring very sophisticated design approaches. This isn’t stuff to write home about. Most likely they would only draw attention when they’re wrong in some way. The inbox running out of space and full of spam. The bank that’s never open when you want to call them. The vacuum cleaner that you don’t want to haul upstairs. The street that throws up obstacles in your path rather than just lets you move. This is the mundane stuff of everyday life and much of it needs a great deal of improvement.

There is hope. The big four technology companies – Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft – all embody lightness in some of their products. As most of us are plugged into at least one of these companies' products for much of our time, this is encouraging. These aren’t niche players. If the big four get lightness right it will be hugely influential across our broader culture. There is a possibility, perhaps even a hope, that at some point we will hit a tipping point where things in the main Just Work and our focus can return to dealing with the real issues of life rather than the contrived problems of lazy and thoughtless designers and bureaucrats.

As designers, it’s the lightness of people that we should we working towards most of all. We’ll try to take the weight from your back and clear the obstacles from your path so that you can move freely wherever you want to go.