Good design is invisible

Posted on by Guy Cookson

Good design is often invisible. It is the thermostat that is simple to set. The app that is easy to navigate. The signage that guides you to where you want to go.

Good design is barely noticeable because it is intuitive. It feels organic. If it is really good it can be hard to imagine how it could have been done differently.

As Steve Jobs was fond of saying, “it just works.”

Bad design, on the other hand, draws attention to itself.

It the hotel shower that sprays cold water in your face. It is the handled door you are meant to push. It is instructions you cannot follow.

Today the layout of a push button phone seems obvious.

The three-by-three grid of nine ascending numbers – with a zero tucked underneath – is so familiar we can use it with our eyes closed.

But this configuration was just one of seventeen designs put forward by Bell Labs in the 1950s.

“The first layout solution proposed was a carryover from existing phones: numbers laid out in a circle,” explains Roman Mars of 99% Invisible.

“It seemed from the start that this approach might win out in the end. Still, Bell saw this as an opportunity to start from scratch, going back to the drawing board and trying out all kinds of creative alternatives.”

In a recently discovered paper from the July 1960 issue of “The Bell System Technical Journal” each of the options is shown.

And the variety is fascinating – from a staggered layout known as “the staircase” to a bowling alley inspired version named “ten-pin”.

“Everything was on the table for the layout of the ten buttons; the researchers’ only objective was to find the configuration that would be as user-friendly, and efficient, as possible,” explains writer Megan Garber.

“So they ran tests. They experimented. They sought input.”

Bell Labs ran tests with hundreds of diallers to measure speed and accuracy.

Eventually, after fifteen designs had been eliminated, it came down to a final two.

The number layout used on calculators narrowly lost to the layout you can still see on your touchscreen phone today.

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette and Lancashire Post. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.

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