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Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Beauty," "Slickness," and the Germans.

Lately I've been hearing a lot of statements along the lines of "it has to be beautiful," and "slickness is a feature."  I've also been seeing puzzled and scared looks on the faces of the engineers who hear these things.  These looks are responded to with allusions to Apple almost always, but I find such explanations lacking.  I think you can explain what the more-slickness-people are driving at by looking at the Germans.

There are many German things that I love.  Three of them are the Leica, the Audi, and the Omega.  OK, Omega is Swiss but they speak Swiss-German so I'm counting them.

Leica M9
Omega Speedmaster
Audi S4
These three artifacts are all slick and beautiful.  They're coveted and carefully handled.   They are polished and treated with kid gloves and respect.  And they got this "slickness" and "beauty" not because the Germans are revolutionary artists, in the way Italian renaissance painters were, but because the Germans paid exacting attention to detail on a minute level and reduced each device to its essence.

There are few extraneous lines or shapes in these designs.  Buttons, markers, and curves nearly all have purpose.  Even that leatherette casing on the bottom of the Leica is there to make it easier to hold.  There are no numerals on the Omega because they would clutter the face and make the added precision of the second markers too hard to read - and you don't need them.  It's a clock, you know what the tick marks mean.  In the case of the Audi, its now-famous daytime running lights are not Xenon gas (which burns out but is brighter than LED) but are a series of LEDs, carefully sculpted into a patter that is visible and provides enough surface area to accomplish the mission.

The lesson the Germans are teaching us about beauty and slickness in software is that they are the product of dedication to careful technical design.  Reduce the necessary functions to what they need to do and no less, organize them carefully around the user, and don't add a lot of spinny-glowy-showy crap.  That's how you make a product slick.

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