Mind & Matter


Simplicity and Surprise

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"In my experience users react very positively when things are clear and understandable. That’s what particularly bothers me today, the arbitrariness and thoughtlessness with which many things are produced and brought to market," remarks German industrial designer Dieter Rams in the documentary Objectified (2009). Gary Hustwit’s latest movie picks up where his previous documentary, Helvetica (2007), left off, expanding the conversation from typefaces into the realm of consumer products.

In a compelling film that features design stars such as Marc Newson and the Bouroullec brothers, Objectified explores the creative process responsible for producing our most beloved objects. It also pulls no punches critiquing mediocre products—as Rams says, "We have too many unnecessary things everywhere." Predictably, the film follows Helvetica’s advocacy of simplification—a quality embodied in Jonathan Ive’s MacBook or Karim Rashid’s vacuum cleaner.

As beautiful as these products are, however, they also possess something that the movie fails to scrutinize—which is the element of surprise. Naoto Fukasawa’s wall-mounted CD player, for example, is provocative not merely because it is simple, but because it hangs on a wall and is activated by a pull string—a conventional arrangement for a wall sconce, perhaps, but not for an audio device.

This element of surprise has been critical to the success of many products, which attract our attention by shifting our expectations. Perhaps the mystery to innovative design lies somewhere in the intersection between simplicity and surprise. However, when does the inclusion of surprise lead to “arbitrary” results? Conversely, when does it make an object "necessary?"



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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.