Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Design Element: Make sure they get the joke.

I’ve been looking around lately at various pieces and styles of furniture, and there seems to be a correlation between how much people like the piece, and how much they understand what they’re seeing. A machine made table is pretty easy to use, but it’s not really inspiring, and there’s a lot of information about how it was made that isn’t really obvious. By comparison, a slab table evokes the shape of the tree, and there’s a very sharp understanding on the part of the observer, that they’re looking at part of a tree. And connections that are made in the mind that enable a more intimate understanding of the object that’s being viewed. It’s a slice of a tree. And the general idea of the process that led from tree to slab is fairly clear.

It’s like a joke: You hear the lead in, you hear the connecting material. But a really funny joke leaves the audience to figure out the leap from the build-up to the punchline. Oh, the guy was dumb, or the girl was easy, or it’s funny becuase we’re lampooning a group or person that we know well enough to get the joke. Or we have our attention called to something that doesn’t quite make sense, but that we do anyway. Our eyes are metaphorically opened, and we get that flash of understanding, that helps us to understand something a little more deeply, or see it more clearly.

I can see that the table was a slice of a tree. It’s not quite the same thing as walking under an actual tree, but the mental image of ‘tree’ is evoked in a pretty clear way. I ‘get’ how the final result came about, more or less.

I have a small tool chest that I made in 2004, that used maple for the drawer fronts, that was tapped for maple syrup. The build up: what are the holes? The punch-line, that’s where the physical tree was tapped for sap, to make maple syrup. The bridge to the punchline: this was a maple tree. It’s not lumber, it’s not just a factory product, it was part of a tree. There’s a direct connection to something real and comprehensible.

Simple understanding doesn’t always come easily. Sometimes, when we’re learning something new, there’s a leap of faith that’s involved. The payoff comes after all the effort, when things start to make sense. It’s the point of math homework: After a while, you understand what’s going on, things click, and you’re ready to learn something new. And there are similar parallels with woodworking. After a while, certain operations make sense.

I bought a Leigh D4 dovetail jig pretty early on. I figured it would come in handy, and it has. But there’s one major selling point that some of my customers were uncomfortable with: It has an enormous user’s manual. Learning new things requires a certain amount of effort, and a certain amount of blind faith that the effort will be rewarded. The manual gave some of them the mistaken impression that the tool was more complicated than it is. In fact, the book is that big because it breaks things down to a very basic level. So I like that the jig includes a book that will take you by the hand and walk you through the process. The book establishes a path to understanding. After a little practice, you understand what’s going on.

You can’t keep re-telling the joke about the chicken crossing the road. Even wise old Zen masters can’t get away with stroking their beard, striking a pose, and telling that joke more than once. People learn, and evolve, and some things simply become old hat. At the same time, a contemporary child of 5 is not going to understand ‘the hippy-dippy weather-man.’ And in general, if you have to have the joke explained to you, it’s not going to be funny. So there is clearly an evolution that takes place. The breakthroughs come when we understand a subject enough to make a joke about it that’s funny.

And that’s the point of this entry. When you’re designing something, whether it’s a tool, or a piece of furniture, or software, or whatever else, make sure that the end user is going to be able to see what’s going on, and be able, with some effort, to figure it out. Make sure it’s familiar enough to them that they can bridge those little gaps. Even if what you’re doing is something that you think is groundbreaking, and all brand new, like Rietveld's chair, make sure they’re going to get the joke.

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