The design mindset

Today, I watched a video about a guy who has totally redesigned his tiny San Francisco loft.

Coder finds DIY analogic solutions to improve SF small loft - YouTube

Ignore the goofy title.

In it, he talks about the feeling of wanting to get everything perfectly the way he wants it.

I like the fine details of like, […] that light is exactly the right level of warmth.

It seems so minor, but a tiny aesthetic choice like that can make a huge difference.

I run across things like this from time to time. It could be a perfectly-designed product, a thoughtful piece of media, a well-presented dish, or an elegant programming language. It’s a rush of delight when you realize that the creators have paid attention to every detail and thought about it more than you or I ever could.

Take the Solarized color scheme, for example. It’s a popular color scheme that nowadays comes bundled with software that you can reskin. This recent article is an ode to the kind of thoughtfulness I’m talking about: The Very Mathematical History of a Perfect Color Combination.

Here’s an illustrative quote.

The Solarized color scheme is no accident. It reflects the obsessive attention to detail of its creator, Ethan Schoonover . “I didn’t release it until I was 1,000 percent sure I loved all the colors and they were all dialed in mathematically,” Schoonover says. “I had multiple monitors, some were color calibrated, others were deliberately messed up. Sometimes I showed my wife, who thought I was a little nuts.”

Sometimes, you can feel the care that went into something just by opening up to the experience, even without knowing the process of its creation. For instance, this Super Bowl halftime performance by Beyoncé speaks for itself. It’s clear that this performance required hundreds of hours of skillful craftsmanship and perfectionism. This doesn’t just happen. It’s designed to look easy at first glance, but the more you pay attention, the more you notice the exacting standards to which it holds itself.

Really, it doesn’t even need to be a purely creative form of expression. What I’m talking about can be evident from a seemingly utilitarian piece of equipment.

These are the headphones I use at work: Sony MDR-7506. They aren’t designed to look attractive and paraded around in public. They are simply a tool meant to live locked away in a studio forever. In fact, on the headband is prominently printed the words “Studio Monitor.” It’s not exactly meant to draw your eye like Beats by Dre or even Bose. However, I can tell just by using them every day that all they’re meant to do is to be in service for years, maybe decades. Nothing more, nothing less. Each aspect of these headphones has been considered thoroughly to fulfill this purpose. That’s why the design has stayed untouched for nearly 30 years.

I’m not a designer, artist, or poet, so I don’t have insight into what sets these things apart from others. However, we may get some clues from The Crystal Goblet, an essay from 1956 by a typographer called Beatrice Warde (h/t Julian).

In it, she argues that drinking wine from a crystal goblet is preferable to drinking from an ornate golden one because…

[…] everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than to hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.

I believe what all of these things have in common is they allow the presentation to simply be a channel through which their original purpose can be transmitted. They ask for no attention on their own. They let the content speak for itself. They serve a purpose completely but do nothing more.

The attention to detail is in service of making it invisible. It takes a lot of work to make the work seem like it’s not there. And that, I think, is worth the time.