Yes, there was a certain unintentional irony to yesterday afternoon's session at Delight, a nationally prominent "experience design" conference paralleling Design Week Portland. With one of the most staggeringly beautiful October afternoons in Portland memory simmering outside, hundreds of experts on the creation of aesthetically pleasing experiences, online and offline, sat in a darkened ballroom at the Portland Art Museum. At one point, the glare of laptops and phones competed with an oddball amateur musical on stage; in the punchline to the latter, singers wailed: "It's better outside! It's better outside!"
The day's keynote talk, from Zappos Labs thinker Golden Krishna, did, at least, shed some light of a different kind. Krishna has stirred up considerable debate in tech and design circles with his thesis—shortly to become a book—that "the best interface is no interface." The lanky, engaging designer is on a crusade, of sorts, against what he calls "screen-based thinking": the 21st Century design default that attempts to solve every problem with an app-laden, tap-demanding digital screen.
"Our love for the digital interface is out of control," Krishna said, running through slides contrasting the hardheaded, practical mechanics of key historical patent applications with absurd screen-era renditions of the same machines. "How do we make a hairdryer better? Slap an interface on it. How do we make a refrigerator better? Slap an interface on it."
Instead, Krishna argued, "we should dream of a screenless world"—one in which tech solutions are subtly and gently embedded into everyday actions, which themselves should be the most important influence shaping design. Instead of an app that allows users to unlock their cars with their smartphones—potentially a 14-step process, as Krishna dissected it—design a car key that seamlessly (and unnoticeably) communicates to the car. "Leverage computers, instead of serving them," he urged, with a series of examples noting design strategies driven by ordinary human behavior and simple, pared-down problem solving rather than the creation of new layers of technology between users and their goals.
As Krishna himself acknowledged, his analysis of current tech-design culture has its critics. (Timo Arnall, for example, lumps Krishna's advocacy of "invisible" design with "childish mythologies like ‘the cloud’; a soft, fuzzy metaphor for enormous infrastructural projects of undersea cables and power-hungry data farms.") But in Delight's room full of professionals who will collectively do a lot to shape our shared experience of technology (and thus, the world), his message had a welcome radical edge.
One specific technological solution, the screen, has come to dominate the underlying processes of design and communication. Krishna's argument, whatever its flaws, draws us back to the world of things, mechanisms, inventions, problems, solutions, and behavior—real technology, transcending the trends of the moment.
His audience at Delight seemed to appreciate the message. Of course, most of them were also looking at their screens.