Thoughtful tools


item 1. - I was asked the other day how many Apple devices we have at home 1.

item 2. - When Apple announced their new product line-up and I told my wife, her reaction was: "Promise me you're not buying any of them."

item 3. - I've recently broken off my 5 year affair with Canon, almost on a whim, to buy a fixed lens rangefinder-like camera from Fuji, a company I barely knew existed.2

Given all this, I guess you could say that I have a Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S, hat tip to Zack Arias, a photographer and wonderful educator, for coining the term.) The way I see it, though, is that I have a passion for thoughtful tools.

You see, what the MacBook Air and the X100s have in common is that they are designed with clarity of purpose and most importantly, with strongly held opinions 3. This makes them better tools for us, humans. Because we can interact with them, and through them, with the designers. Because they free us to do our task (job / work / play whatever) yet constrain us enough that we can be creative. Because they respect us, even if they disagree with us. And yes, of course, because all this makes them more beautiful.

I know this is a strange way of seing things. But only because we're surrounded by objects and interactions that are mostly designed "by default". We're surrounded by indecision. The buttons on a machine are placed by the engineer for manufacturing reasons. The font on your presentation is Calibri 4 because that's the default in powerpoint these days. And we are so used to this non-decision that we take it for normal. When a tool or a service comes along that has been thoughtfully built, we dismiss it as hipster-chic or snobbish.

Yet I am hopeful, because Apple is conning us. Their tools have always been thoughtful. 5 But they have not been popular until the last decade. And they are not popular because they're thoughtful. They're popular for the wrong reasons. They're popular because they're "cool". They're popular because they're "elite". Stealthily, we have been exposed to thoughtful design in a mass market context, without seeing it coming. And now, we can see that thoughtful products are in fact, better. Hopefully, enough consumers are starting to change their perception that thoughtful design becomes a valid business model, not just the niche it's always been.

That's what I think Fuji has been doing in the past few years with their cameras. I know little about them, and their transformation is still recent, but all the signs point this way. Here are a few:

  • The X100 was not a "retro" camera. It was a camera that used interface elements of old cameras, iterated over the years, because they made sense. And yes, from that, they look cool and retro, but as a consequence.

  • The X100s is an iteration of the X100. It's a refinement. It's changed where it makes sense, or where the X100 fell short. But it speaks the same language, and it makes most of the same choices.

  • The X100(s) are opinionated cameras. There are few compromises, they reward study and the constraints are well thought out. There is no big green button for full auto mode. Yet the JPEG engine, which most pros and enlightened amateurs scoff at, is so good that some pros confess they shoot jpeg exclusively (at least for their own shots).

And on top of this really good design, they make non-obvious business choices. Not only do they deliver firmware updates that enhance major functionalities of the cameras, but they release them for discontinued models 6. That, as for Apple, is the sign that Thoughtful Design is finally coming to maturity.

So in the end, why does this thoughtfulness matter? Well, initially, because it makes for better, more useful tools for all of us. We do get to play with cool toys, and we do get to create beautiful things with them. But ultimately, if this catches on, I hope it may be part of the answer to our disposable mentality, both in the physical and the cultural world. We are starting to see thoughtful answers to the likes of Facebook and Google. I can't wait for one of them to truly gain momentum.

  1. the answer is 11 
  2. I swapped this for this 
  3. yes, I also believe you should hold strong opinions lightly 
  4. Arial if you've really angered the gods 
  5. A 25 year old Steve Jobs obsessed on the typography on 8 bit screens. 
  6. if you have a X100, the latest firmware update brings you the single most useful function you where still lacking from the X100s