Monday, January 28, 2008

Wabi-Sabi and Product Design

There are many examples far worse than this.
I find it funny that people will spend hundreds of dollars on a fancy piece of elegantly designed consumer electronics like the iPod or iPhone and then stick them into a cheap and hideous case designed to "protect" it.

It reminds me of those living rooms some of my friends' families had with nice furniture trapped under plastic shrouds.

What's the point? They love the object's beauty so much they'd rather hide it or obliterate it completely lest it get a single scratch? These things aren't supposed to stay perfect, flawless, beautiful forever (just like you and me). The expected consumer lifetime for most PDAs, mobile phones and MP3 players is 18 months. You really can't live with a scratch that long?

I believe Apple puts those shiny chrome backs on the things to force people to fetishize them, constantly trying to rub off their own fingerprints. Sisyphean in a way. All that attention - it's like washing your car every day.

Zune has done a nice job of giving their players surfaces that still feel and look nice but don't require you to carry a bottle of Brasso everywhere you go.

There's a Japanese concept known as wabi-sabi. There aren't direct analogues in English, but the general idea is there is a dignity and beauty in things that are aged and worn, and that impermanence and transience are good and right.

Would you rather have a shiny brand new guitar or a vintage Strat from the 50s? Most people, not just guitar junkies, prefer older, worn instruments. Wabi-sabi.

Fender and other manufacturers have realized there's big money to be made in delivering new guitars that look (and to a lesser degree, feel) like they're old.

As a guitar player and appreciator of wabi-sabi myself, I cannot deny that I think older guitars look and play better than new ones. I even think the faux-old ones look better than new. But I could never buy an ersatz old guitar. That's cheating, and even cheesy. Part of the wabi-sabi aesthetic is the implication of the wear - this thing has been around, it's been used, it has a history.

The Steampunk movement is operating in this space coincidentally, if not explicitly. And one of the reasons people liked the design in Star Wars so much was how everything in the world felt used and old, as opposed to the typical "out of the packaging" look of most other science fiction.

I wish more designers would take advantage of wabi-sabi. What would a car that came "relic"ed look like? Why don't they? (answer: because the car companies have a lot invested in you wanting brand new shiny cars instead of old ones - and there are way more old cars than new available. The reverse is true for guitars).

Consumer electronics would be great like this. I would love an MP3 player that was slowly rusting, with big chunky knobs. Or a PDA with a leather back that wore and aged like a Filofax or notebook. A home stereo with dents.

What about a PC application that "aged", wore, and picked up dings and marks? What would that be like?

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