• Peter VanderPoel

The Lavender Button


My computer was completely black. The only exception was a small, lavender button. It was a "disk eject" on the face of a PC that I had in my office. It was about an inch and a half long and a sixteenth of an inch wide. The edge of the button was eased and had a dip in the center about the same radius as my forefinger. One day the disk drive stopped working. Several more jabs with my finger didn’t change the result. I was unable to find the small hole normally provided to insert an unfolded paper clip to manually eject the tray. I did notice. however, that there was a seam that outlined the panel that held the button. Using my fingers, I pried the panel down on its hinge. When it snapped down, the function of the button was revealed in all its glory: it’s sole purpose was to push another, black, rectangular button; the one that actually ejected the disk; no electronics, no springs. Someone decided that black and rectangular wasn’t good enough and that lavender and curvy would make the experience better.

The difference between a PC and a Mac serves as an excellent stand-in for a discussion of engineering design vs. architectural design.

Those of you old enough to remember the introduction of Microsoft “Windows” would recognize that it worked in exactly the same way as that lavender button. It was a digital shell that simply pushed the buttons of DOS in a prettier way.

At one point, I managed the computers in a small architectural firm. It was there I had my first opportunity to open up the mysterious box of a PC that holds the computer components, and learned the true value of an "engineering" design. Inside that box was mostly air with a cluster of various drives and boards suspended inside; It was a modular system. Need a new CD drive? Then pull out the old one, stick in a new one in, attach the plugs and answer some questions. Bigger hard disk? same answer. All the components were interchangable. Anything could be removed; anything could be added. The experience of actually using it? Meh. It was more important to make it convenient for the person who fixed it.

The Windows OS was a modular system, too. If the operating system didn't attract customers, then it could be redesigned, but DOS would still be underneath waiting for its buttons to be pushed. This is an "engineering" solution in that all the parts have been designed independent of the other parts and can therefore be removed and replaced, one by one, as needed. The experience of using it is secondary.

The MacIntosh reverses this approach. It's a beautiful, simple object. I feel like I need to clean up my office and pull on a black turtleneck whenever I fire one up. The PC has a "series" approach, where a cluster of modules are wired together; the design of a Mac is a holistic one where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The greatest part of the "whole" is concern for the user, the human being who not only has to use it, but wants to use it. The experience is not only important, it is paramount.

But that beauty has some shortcomings bound with it. I needed to add more disk space to my Mac desktop and called the folks at my local Apple Store to get the skinny on the process. My previous work as network administrator prepped me for opening the box, pulling out the old and sticking in the new. The tech guy on the other end of the line stopped me cold. "You can't add hard drive space to that machine." The downside to an "architectural" design is that it is often so tightly integrated that the whole cannot be subdivided without making the parts incoherent.

The famous architectural historian Viollet-le-Duc summed it up by saying (roughly)," A good design is one where any item added is extraneous and removing anything renders it incomplete." It's like pulling blocks out of the game, "Jenga". One wrong move and the whole thing comes tumbling down.

#design #architecture #architect #engineering #designthinking