Less is Moore: How Innovation Drives the Aesthetics of Tech

From astronomical clocks to Regency pleasure carriages, from the walnut dashboard of a vintage Rolls Royce to the precision-engineered bevel on a Patek Philippe timepiece, tech design was, once, a thing of beauty. Yet consumer electronics rarely lived up to that ideal: infested with buttons, knobs, reels, dials, cables and wires, and afflicted by high component costs, they were often items to be concealed, not celebrated.

Today, as we move beyond the era of analog controls into one of more abstract forms, beauty has regained its proper place in the world of technology. And the trend extends far beyond the minimalism that Jony Ive defined for Apple and its myriad imitators.

The rise of art-driven technology products

Samsung’s Frame TV, designed by Yves Béhar’s fuseproject studio – courtesy of fuseproject

A pair of recent releases have played with form sufficiently to turn tech into art. The Frame TV, created by Yves Béhar’s fuseproject studio for Samsung, transforms the television from a black void into a deceptively simple frame that houses works of art. Bang & Olufsen’s Beosound Shape system morphs speaker components into forms that look like 2D hexagons from one angle, and 3D cubes from another: coloured to match the interior it adorns, it’s closer to Op Art than tech.

Even at a lower price point, aesthetics remain at the heart of next-generation tech. The clean lines of Google’s friendly pebble for Home Mini or Amazon’s lopped sphere for the Echo Spot are unsullied by even so much as an off switch. The start-up Nolii is even restyling cords and cables with braided nylon and loops. As Ivy Ross, who came from a fashion background to head up Google’s hardware department, told Dezeen, “We’ve now accepted that technology is a part of our lives. The goal is either to make it invisible now, and be magical, or fit in and blend in.”

Adam Leonards is a creative director at Matter, a San Francisco design firm recently acquired by Fjord, Accenture Interactive’s design and innovation unit. He believes that neither the form nor the function of a piece of technology need be limited by its analog heritage, emphasising the holistic awareness contemporary design demands.

“Increasingly, I would say that the focus is on the relationship of the object to its larger context and environment,” he explained. “As technology products become more attached to services, their interactions are starting to expand past the single use of the product itself at a single moment in time. In these cases, the form and aesthetics of the object are being influenced by the greater experiences they enable, rather than the industry vertical they represent.”

For example, Béhar’s Frame has transformed the television from an item tailored to the single purpose of watching content into an artwork that delivers pleasure throughout the day. Rather than concealing the TV in a cabinet, as our grandparents might have done, sleight of hand creates a secondary aesthetic use.

Innovative sensors open up entirely new interactions

Design, of course, does not exist in a vacuum. Myriad material and technological innovations have liberated designers and enabled the new beauty. Organic light-emitting diode technology drives the ultra-thin, flexible screen of the Bild X TV Loewe recently previewed in Berlin; The Frame’s art would not look natural without an ultra-efficient sensor to adjust to ambient light. Wireless technology has transformed the look and feel of the modern world.

The first patents for the Apple iPhone showcase a revolutionary – at the time – touchscreen technology

And it’s almost impossible to overstate the influence of the iPhone, the first touchscreen device that worked intuitively and without a stylus. As key components become progressively smaller and cheaper, more space and budget remains for design craft. And as technological gaps narrow, aesthetics play a larger role in the marketing story.

Stephen Green, a fellow at the Dyson School of Design Engineering in Imperial College London, highlights the transition from skeuomorphic interfaces—where icons mimic the look of real-world objects, right down to texturing and shadows—to a more digitally native approach. “That reached an extreme level when Jony Ive made a point of rejecting any Apple interface that involved any aspect of overt skeuomorphism,” he said. “Things are going much more towards flat design in everything.” And, just as we no longer need touchscreen icons to mimic their real-world equivalents, digital hardware no longer needs to retain redundant buttons and knobs.

Dieter Rams’ masterful PC4 for Braun, notably emulated by the Apple iPod

The narrative arc of contemporary industrial design swoops in a pristine curve from Dieter Rams’ work at Braun, such as the pared-back elegance of his PC 4 record player, to Jony Ive’s and Steve Jobs’ rigorous minimalism at Apple. The Bauhaus movement, some of whose leading thinkers taught the young Rams, also inspired Jobs, by way of Herbert Bayer‘s architecture in Aspen.)

But, Green explains, the story is not quite that simple. He cites the Nautilus speaker, a sinuous, spiny, naturalistic form created by Bowers & Wilkins in 1993, as a breakthrough: more than 20 years on, its sleek, pearlescent silhouette, like an alien gastropod, still looks modern. Vertu, the recently defunct luxury mobile phone company founded in 1998, was another turning point: a tech brand with design craft at the core of its business model.

Bower & Wilkins’ timeless Nautilus speaker, designed in 1993

“You can see the origins of these things going back 20, 25 years, but Apple was also very significant,” Green said, highlighting the linkage between the minimalist aesthetic and luxury. “With a minimalist approach, just from the craft design point of view, you have to pay significantly more attention to the materials, the details and the finishes.”

Designers are increasingly part of the C-suite

Both to individuals and to businesses, design is more important than ever before. American companies are increasingly bringing designers on at C-suite level; since 2015, corporations have bought more than 50 major design consultancies; Accenture’s Fjord is now the biggest design firm in the world; and in Europe, too, the culture is beginning to change.

The billion-dollar question vexing today’s design brains is the next big interface: now knobs and buttons have given way to touchscreens and icons, what comes next? For Green, effective voice control seems likely to be the game changer. For futurist Jim Carroll, it might be gesture. “I can see a future coming up where I’ll just wave my hand and the spatial capability will see that I’ve moved my hand, or pointed, or nodded, or winked, and the next-generation iPhone will recognise the facial gesture,” he said.

And, in a world where gesture control or voice control replaces the physical interface, and, maybe, just maybe, wireless charging eliminates the cable, design will truly have free rein, and the new beauty will take yet more unexpected forms.

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