Misc Magazine seems to like my essays, but this time they went too far: they asked me to write on style. Hmm.
Ah, style. The elegance of gentle interaction, with grace and beauty, wit and charm. Or perhaps brute force abruptness, rudeness and insult. Style refers to the way of doing something and although we usually use it in the positive sense, the word itself is neutral, referring only to the manner by which something is done. Style can be coarse and ugly, brutish and dangerous. The best styles, including both those we respect and prefer and those we detest, are true and honest, consistent and coherent.
Many people confuse style with fashion, that is, with the surface features of an object. No, good style runs deep. I work in interaction and product design and the designers with whom I work think hard about what lies beneath the skin, about the way a product or service interacts with those who engage it, about the value, functions, and utility of the design. We go deeply into the essence of the product. This sense of style is one of the fundamentals of great design.
Personality and style go together, each influencing the other. With people, personalities are thought to be genetic whereas style can be acquired. Products, however, are designed, Products are designed, which means that their personalities and styles are relatively fixed, making it difficult to disentangle one from the other.
Automobiles have very distinct styles, distinct personalities. One of my favorite examples is the Mini-Cooper, where the exterior design is reflected into the interior, with switches that are fun to operate. The style permeates all aspects of the brand, including the advertisements, the website, and even the pre- and post-purchase support. Consider the driving experience: Corvette versus Porsche; Mercedes versus BMW; Mini-Cooper versus Smart. Each is distinctly different, each has a distinct personality. Mercedes is gentle and refined, the BMW more responsive. BMW is sportier, but its ride is less comfortable because its style requires the driver to engage the road. The Corvette is masculine and strong, but its power is rough around the edges, especially when contrasted to the Porsche with its smooth, silky response and agile cornering. The Mini-Cooper is cute but with a BMW-like feel to the drive whereas the Smart is just cute, slightly rough along the edges - very un-Mercedes like.
Rudeness can be stylish. Search for "favorite rude restaurants" and up pops Ed Debevic's in Chicago, a restaurant famous for its outrageous wait staff who practice rudeness with perfection. People line up at the door to get in, the better to be insulted. One comment on a discussion website put it this way: "You expect the service to be good, but also for them to be rude and snotty with you! It is fun." Developing a rude style that pleases and amuses is not easy: good style requires effort.
The Apple iPhone goes beyond mere utility to gracefulness. Flip the screen and it continues to move long after the finger has left. Inertia propels it, and friction gradually slows it down, a viscous friction, for when it stops it often rebounds a bit. Is this necessary? No, but it is part of the style, of the charm. Windows don't just appear and disappear: they come from somewhere and return, their trajectory continuing the stylistic framework. The movement has a certain grace: drag a screen image beyond its limit and watch it struggle, wanting to move, but having no place to move to. So it does move, but with great difficulty, and the instant you release your fingers from the screen the page springs back to position. Both the resistance and the return to position are done with a subtle grace, so pleasing to experience that I sometimes do it just to smile. Inertia and friction are meaningless terms in the artificial, virtual world of information and computer-generated graphics, but to the person using it, they make the screen appear as a physical presence. That's style.
Android phones are like new graduates of a university at their first job where they are required to don business attire. They try hard. They do all the right things, but you can tell they are new at it: they don't quite get it. They are amusingly clumsy, still immature youngsters.
The worst devices are those with no sense of style, clumsy combinations of this and that. A little bit here, a little bit there. Condescending in tone here, rude and incomprehensible there. Smooth and silky here, rough and scratchy there. For example Microsoft Windows XP, operating system (Microsoft now does much better) or your home entertainment system with its multiple, conflicting remote controls, each one of them being a hodge-podge of mismatched styles and forms.
Kitchen appliances are particularly bad. Much of the technology in the home, whether in the entertainment center, the kitchen or the laundry, look like junkyards of randomness, with no theme, no coherence, no framework. In other words, no style.
There are many dimensions to great design, but great style is certainly among the most important. Style in appearance, style in behavior, style in the manner of interaction - style in every aspect of the product or service. Great style requires careful deliberate specification and then attention to all the details that result, for everything must be coherent, everything must be consistent with the chosen style. Call it personality, call it the voice of the product, call it the persona of the product, call it what you will: great design always means great style.
Disney theme parks are stylish, for they create a consistent world view through appearance, sound, behavior, the rides, the layout of the park itself, and the carefully cultivated, trained and regulated behavior of their employees. Customers are "guests" and employees are "cast members." Some people are turned off by the cuteness, but having the employees think of themselves as part of the cast of an elaborate fantasy for the guests helps maintain the consistent style of friendly, helpful interaction. One doesn't have to like a style to appreciate its elegant coherence. I don't happen to like Chicago's Ed Debevic's, but that doesn't take away my appreciation for their ability to maintain consistency in their rude fun.
Whether we are talking about style of a person, of clothing, or a product or service, whether it invokes liking or dislike, we can still appreciate the brilliance of great style. Honest, coherent, and consistent.
Don Norman studies, teaches, and practices good design. He is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, an IDEO fellow, former VP at Apple and professor. He is the author of Design of Everyday Things, Emotional Design, and, most recently, Living with Complexity. He lives in Silicon Valley at www.jnd.org.