Thinking outside the box

IN A WORLD OVERWHELMED BY THE COMPLICATED and frustrating, a few daring designers have the vision to step out from the crowd and create truly elegant and simple products. Whether it’s a home defibrillator that simplifies saving lives by speaking its instructions, or digital art that speaks to the soul, it comes down to seeing through the fog of complexity to fashion a straight-forward solution that immediately connects with us all.

The irony is that while technology is supposed to make our lives easier and less complicated by taking care of the little things like e-mail and recording TV shows, the opposite is often true . Help is on the way, however, thanks to John Maeda, a leading force in the movement to simplify design and the founder of the Massa-chusetts Institute of Technology’s SiMpliciTy Design Lab. “When you see that one best way to get the job done, you slap your hand on the table and scream, ‘There it is!’ At that point you understand that less really can be more,” he says.

Harmony in Conflict

Whether for posters, advertisements or an art show, Maeda’s graphic style is very repetitious to the point of appearing primitive, but the closer you look, the more detail is revealed. A quick glance at a cover he did for the New York Times Magazine five years ago (1999) appears to be nothing but the word “NEW” in a variety of sizes and colors, but a closer look exposes “The New New Thing” in white type hiding in plain sight. Says Maeda: “There is harmony in the conflict between the simple and complex.”

As down-to-earth as Maeda is, Constance Adams’ work is literally out of this very world. A space architect, she designs the structures we send into the cosmos. Her big idea, dubbed TransHab, is an inflatable module that is folded up for its trip into space, then—like an emergency life raft—is inflated when it’s needed. “The correct solution will,” she explains, “always be the simplest one. Elegance is multidimensional.”

Although Adams whimsically describes herself as being “originally from Mars, just trying to get home,” in fact she was a Harvard undergraduate who has a Yale School of Architecture degree . Her technique is novel: Rather than utilizing a rigid structure that is tediously assembled in space, TransHab is inflated in orbit to become a spacious three-story structure for 12 astronauts to live and work in, complete with kitchen, sleeping quarters and shower.

Building the Future

While currently on hold as the U.S. space program gets back on the launch pad, Adams thinks its chance of long-term success is quite good. She believes that TransHab is the next evolutionary stage in the development of space flight, and she has the patience not to rush it. “I’ll be long gone before anything of the kind takes place,” says Adams, “This is the cathedral building of our time. The work of generations.”

Two of a kind, Maeda and Adams are recent nominees for World Technology Awards, which are presented each year to the world’s most innovative and influential thinkers . “It may sound trite, but not every potential feature needs to be incorporated into every product, no matter how great the temptation,” says James R Clark, president and founder of the World Technology Network. “Good, simple design makes the tough choices of what to include.”

The World Technology Network’s annual summit and awards presentation this year will be held in San Francisco, Oct. 7-8, 2003, . For more interesting information or to apply to participate, visit:

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