Saturday, November 15, 2008

Materials, Wear, Beausage, and Wabi-Sabi

Continuing the post about the impact of material choice on an object, the physical material of the object also has the potential to extend and deepen the human-object relationship. It can become a visual and haptic recording of its story and use, literally aging with its user. However, there is a key difference between materials wearing in and wearing out. Natural materials, like leather, denim, and wood, can age with dignity, becoming more beautiful over time. Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycles, and designer of the renowned RB-1 Bridgestone, created the portmanteau beausage to describe the beauty that can develop over time through the use of a product. Grant said, "In general, real materials develop beausage, and synthetics look like old junk." These synthetics, instead of developing a patina and a recorded history of its 'life', just look dirty. Even though we might have a plastic computer mouse that still works, we replace it because it looks grimy and stained. But there are ways to design plastics that acknowledge the inevitability of wear. This concept car design understands that bumpers will get scratched and worn.

The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi accepts the transience and embraces the beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete". The wabi-sabi aesthetic recognizes that time will pass and materials will wear - and designs for it.
The simplicity of wabi-sabi is best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence…Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn’t mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn’t mean in any way diminishing something’s “interestingness”, the quality that compels us to look at that something over, and over, and over again.
In addition to the source of the above passage, Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, I should look at About Time and Eternally Yours: Design in Time, a collection of writings on product endurance and durability.

How simple is too simple?

Don Norman makes the claim, in this essay, that simplicity is overrated. According to his research, people will often buy products with more features, even if they are more complicated. Consumers feel like they are getting more for their money, even though these features will probably never be used. Fewer features imply less control and less value to many users.

I should also read Don Norman's Emotional Design.