From chaos to order: a design principle

Recently I read George Nelson’s book “How to See” and came across two concepts: “articulated” and “closed”.

One curious aspect of evolution in design is that it seems to go along the same lines … in every instance, we note a highly articulated design at the beginning, and then a steady movement in the direction of an entirely closed form. In case the terms are unfamiliar … “articulated” means that the working parts are out in the open and can be seen and understood.

George Nelson, How to See

George uses the examples of a car and a typewriter. Over time the visible working mechanisms retreated into the body of the machine and all that was left to see was smooth panels.

I think this is part of a broader trend that humans seem to prefer in general. In universal terms it’s the desire to move from chaos to order. You can also think of it in these ways:

The iPhone is one example. Part of the reason it took the world by storm was that it skipped ahead a few years in terms of this evolution. Earlier phones had all sorts of buttons on their faces. The iPhone removed all of those buttons and relied on software controls to do the same jobs. The result was a much cleaner, smoother, simpler piece of hardware which was very appealing.

Another example that’s always interested me is how music by a given band tends to become more “commercial” over time. Generally this means they sound more polished, cleaner, softer. I’m sure this is partly down to better production quality as the band becomes more successful. I think it also has to do with appealing to a bigger market. They chop off the bits that stick out, so that they can sell more songs.

We saw this shift in UI design as well. Skeuomorphic interfaces were full of embellishments, depth, and detail. Then there was the big shift to flat design. We see cases where designers rebel against this evolution, but will the industry as a whole ever return to more complicated visual design? I doubt it.

One interesting counter example is Dyson vacuum cleaners. When the not-very-interesting vacuum cleaner market was panelled in smooth plastic, Dyson came along and released what looked like a jet engine without its cover on. In “User Friendly” Cliff Kuang says it was a marketing tactic:

the Dyson vacuum, with its exposed piping and carefully outlined motor casings, was meant to tell a story about the company’s zeal for engineering.

Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant, User Friendly

This suggests that there’s value in going against the grain, even if the broad trend suggests the opposite.