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Simplicity

Making the case for ease, elegance, and endurance

John Maeda is a professor at MIT’s Media Lab, and a nationally recognized computer scientist. His early computer art experiments, for example, were a precursor to the interactive graphics common on websites today.

He’s not, by any means, a technophobe. But recently he decided to get a new cellphone, and nearly wore himself out in the process.

"It was killing me," says Maeda. "Choosing a service carrier and the kind of plan I needed. Figuring out the implications of choosing a phone using 'GSM' or 'CDM.' I wasn’t sure what it meant to have a locked phone or an unlocked phone. I gave up. I said, ‘I can’t deal with this.’ It was too complex a process.’’

For reasons such as this, Maeda is now a "repentant" technowhiz and a leading apostle of simplicity. In 2004 he founded the MIT Simplicity Consortium at the Media Lab, which works with major corporations to design technologies for simplicity-driven products. He's just published a book called "The Laws of Simplicity," a guide to simplicity in the digital age. He ruminates about simplicity on his Simplicity blog, and next week he’ll discuss strategies for making products simpler at a panel discussion in Boston on the future of design and technology sponsored by Core77, a New York-based design networking organization that publishes an influential design blog.

"Achieving simplicity in the digital age [is] a personal mission," says Maeda. "We are all seeking simplicity."

We may seek it, but it’s not easily achieved, as the average befuddled consumer is reminded at this time of year. With Christmas less than seven weeks away, it’s hard to hide from the retail onslaught of ‘‘must-have’’ gadgets, tech products, and home accessories, many of them impenetrable without a user’s manual, plenty of them of dubious relevance or value to the planet.

What’s a MuVo Sport C100? A Neo titanium Micro Driver? Is daily life enhanced by an Ultrasonic Jewelry Cleaner or Voice Memo Parking Timer that reminds you when to feed the meter?

"There is huge pressure to make products smarter and more technologically imbued, which ends up almost backfiring," says Allan Chochinov, a designer and partner of Core77. "End users feel they can’t use them. They make us feel dumb or incompetent."

Adding to the confusion is the accelerated life cycle of products these days, in this design-obsessed culture where style and fashion are powerful forces. ‘‘Design is in its premiere decade,’’ says Bill Cockayne, CEO of Change Research Inc., a San Francisco technology design firm and one of the speakers at next week’s design panel. ‘‘Design is in BusinessWeek every week. Design is the new rock star."

Increasingly, products are becoming as "ephemeral" as rock stars.

"It turns the products into just an expression of style,’’ says Chochinov. "What is this week’s or this month’s or this year’s tennis shoe or MP3 player, or organizer? It sort of doesn’t matter. You’ll only have it for six months, then you’ll buy another one. There are so many designers out there now, and there is such an imperative to crank out stuff and get it onto retail shelves. Plus, technology is forever pushing us to stick more whiz-bang into every product we create."

But how much whiz-bang and complexity can Americans take? There are signs that they’re reaching the saturation point, and that designers are starting to respond. "Simple" is becoming a watchword of this tired, overstimulated generation — from "Real Simple" magazine, whose motto is "Life Made Easier"; to the award-winning product design company simplehuman, whose mission is to "create products that make life easier and more efficient"; to the influential Martha Stewart, whose new 740-page tome, ‘‘Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook,’’ espouses classic housekeeping simplicity.

Chochinov says consumers are much savvier now than they used to be, and one of the things they are demanding is ‘‘clarity’’ in their products, with less extraneous elements. The proliferation of design blogs such as Engadget and CNET — with their ruthless customer reviews — is helping to ensure that this will happen.

"This new information system on the Internet is allowing people to express their opinions about things before they make purchases," he says. "They talk about 'feature creep'’ about too many buttons, about poorly organized products that are horrible to use. It’s a shakeout for designers. It will have the same effect as bad reviews on new movies, or Broadway shows that close in a week. This is something that will push our industry forward, and it directly results in sales, or no sales."

This probably wouldn’t surprise Emilia Terragni, editorial director of Phaidon Design Classics, a new three-volume compendium of 999 classic design products from the 1700s to today. Selected by committee, the products have, for the most part, ‘‘stood the test of time,’’ she said. They are innovative, continue to be relevant, and ‘‘when we compiled the list, we noticed that most of the products ..... are ones that are simple,’’ said Terragni, interviewed in her London office. ‘‘They are simple in the way they are used, and simple in their shape. I think simplicity also means being friendly. And they can be complex objects that are used simply.’’

The iPod MP3 player fits this category and made the cut. ‘‘The minimalist purity of the iPod reflects the material and spiritual angst that accompanies relentless technological advancement," the editors write. "It is effectively technology worn as jewellery."

The roster also includes such domestic staples as the bobby pin ("a little gem of functional engineering") and Sunbeam Mixmaster ("an icon of household convenience.") It includes office supplies like the paper clip and Post-it Notes; home and office furnishings such as Le Creuset Cast Iron Cookware and the Bertoia Diamond Chair; toys like the yo-yo, Frisbee, and Rubik’s Cube; and electronic devices like the Sony Walkman, Nintendo GameBoy, and PalmPilot.

Terragni says that the timelessness of these products prove that people "want objects that can last, that they can have around for awhile, rather than keeping them for six months and being bored." Today's trend-conscious tendencies are ‘‘wrong,’’ she said, though she believes simplicity will eventually prevail. ‘‘We are going more toward good quality. I’m seeing young designers now who are much less funky. They’re leaning towards more solid, good design."

She hails, for example, the humble paper clip, ‘‘an absolutely brilliant invention, and we still use it without even thinking about it, because of the simplicity of the shape and its performance. Nothing could be better.’’ She extols the virtues of the kitchen whisk because "the performance is spectacular ..... and the simplicity of the form."

But even these paradigms of simplicity aren’t necessarily simple enough for simplicity guru John Maeda. ‘‘Things like a paper clip and a whisk are simple only after you’ve seen them used and mastered how they work,’’ he says. "A paper clip would seem more like a talisman or a decorative piece without instruction. Try teaching a child how to beat an egg with a whisk and you think twice about its design simplicity."

What simple products does he admire? "I like the simplicity of chopsticks," Maeda said. "As a design, they are just two sticks. They don’t even have to be perfectly straight. You can break two small branches off a tree and scrape off the bark on the ends that will touch your mouth. Voila! Tool and nature intertwined in harmony.’’

"Design, Technology and the Future,’’ a panel discussion sponsored by Core77. Wednesday: event from 1 to 6 p.m., talk at 2 p.m.; Vessel, 125 Kingston St., Boston. Core77.com

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