At the End of the Day

Only simple, better, effective and attractive design deserves the soubriquet ‘progress’.

Hauling myself onto a ferry yesterday – after 700 miles on the road, and with ever-growing flu symptoms – all I wanted was a shower, and a bed.  The shower, when I got to it, reminded me once again of what it is, above all, we have lost in 21st century design. It did this by offering what almost nothing else does any more: elegant simplicity.

The check-in, docking procedures, customs and computer-generated cabin key-card were the only obstacles between your shivery correspondent and that glorious shower. But they were all examples of perverted design. Customs designed to ensure you realise that They are in charge, and You cannot escape. Boarding procedures designed to keep up the entirely false French employment level. A pet check-in miles from boarding, for the same reason. And of course, the now universal hotel key-card, with its punch holes and hieroglyphics and flashing lights and complete unwillingness to (a) work like any other keycard in existence, and (b) first time.

Ferry showers are always brilliant. There are only two things of any import in a shower: the power at which the water emerges, and the heat of that water. Ferry showers have only two controls – right next to each other, and both going from left to right: one for power, and one for heat. You can set it at anything from knock you into next door boiling, to freezing dribble, depending on the eccentricity of your masochism. And that’s it. The perfect design and functionality of the ferry shower is the result of severe limits on both: ships move, electricity is limited, while cabins stretch from prow to stern and exist on three levels.

But every shower made beyond the ferries of the seven seas requires a degree in four-dimensional astrophysics to understand it. This is because designers are given a brief both too open, and unrelated to what real people want. And because most designers think complex is clever – like the idiot Gordon Brown and his fellow meddlers – showers just keep on getting more and more incomprehensible. Sadly, this disease is spreading to anything involving bodily hygiene.

We stopped at a brand new services driving through Brittany to Roscoff, and the only requirement for anyone wanting to urinate there, wash their hands and then blow them dry (before wiping still-wet hands on trousers) was an IQ of 147. Defaecation in many public lavatories these days involves the deconstruction of light beams, complete knowledge of the tear-dynamics of loo paper dispensers, and an encyclopaedic grasp of flush mechanisms.

But before that encounter, we had stopped at a hotel where a seven-figure safe combination was the only way to get in and out of the parking in one’s car…while a side gate for pedestrians was wide open. So obviously, car thieves these days are far too well-heeled to arrive on foot.

The adjoining cafe menu contained so many combinations of offer, choice, salads and dressings, I gave up and asked the waitress to choose. The mobile phone that was supposed to be providing our alarm call required seven steps to set that alarm, at least six of which I obeyed to the letter. I just couldn’t believe there was a stage after ‘done’ – but there was: ‘save’.

On rising late the next morning, I tried in vain to get my new spray deodorant to spray. But it had been upgraded to include a new ‘neck lock’ mechanism. After failing to gain access to this Nivea spray, I went to the website, but explanation was there none as to why the neck had been fitted, or indeed why it behaved like a chastity belt fitted by a Knight errant with a very bad case of obsessively controlling sexual sociopathy.

This is the new version of Microsoft Seven in which I’m typing. The opening program page has an array of no less than 52 alternative views, formats, settings, panes and fonts. But nowhere is there a button called ‘New Document’. This can be found at point 7, under ‘settings’.

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I have had people suggest to me that my regular rants about poor design are simply Grumpy Old Man syndrome…. and the intense anger I have towards that term a sign that I’m losing both the plot and my sense of humour. Well, I beg to disagree.

‘Grumpy old Man’ has become the empty-headed insult of choice for all those who think any change is progress – and all progress fully thought-through. And those who find the term so satisfying rarely react well when I call them, for example, ugly fat Muslims, or comprehensively educated young morons.

Both issue and problem here are extremely easy to define. Change is only progress if it makes things easier to use, more effective in use, and nicer to look at. Other bonuses if possible include cheaper to replace, and easier for me (or anyone else) to fix. On this basis (and I’d challenge anyone to arrive at a better one) the wind turbine has to be the worst ‘invention’ in history: the only progress it represents is that of the lunatic fringe of Greenism towards tertiary religious mania.

If we look back over the last fifty years, technology has blasted through more barriers than had been breached in the previous 3000. But has the delivery – on the criteria I outlined above – been what we should expect? No, of course it hasn’t.

In France, our new Anglo-French digital box produces a longer channel-changing time and poorer volume flexibility than its predecessor. In the UK, the channel-changing and favourites mechanisms need three separate remotes to make them work. All three have buttons on them whose function is either impenetrable and/or clearly unnecessary. On arriving back here, we found that BBCNews had become ‘a scrambled channel’. If the weather turns even vaguely inclement, all channels will show us an entertaining message, ‘No satellite signal is being received’.

Using the 50-years-ago judgement system, in 1961 I could get home from school, press one button and have a choice of two channels, with no warm-up period, no crap programmes, no scrambled channels, and no worries at all about the weather – because not even a plague of locusts would’ve made the slightest difference to reception.

This week, huge numbers of human beings mourned the passing of Steve Jobs, a man unique in many ways – but chiefly for his ability to be a geek without any of the unloveable features of geeks: that is, he designed things of beauty…things that made usage of them simple, not prone to crashing every five minutes, not requiring manuals of 800 pages (many of them in the wrong order), and above all, inventions that represented a genuine improvement.

I will offer just one, splendidly outstanding example of this last point. The Ipad, when one presses the power button, turns on. It turns on immediately. There are no stupid messages about initialising and uploading and major startup errors last time, or Press F9 to end the Universe, or non-responsive program detection systems designed to help Microsoft make your life more difficult. There is nothing save for the screen appearing, and a product ready to use.

It is my sincere hope that somewhere on another more astral plane, the late Mr Jobs is already offering new ideas to the Chaotic Creator on the subject of human evolution. I hope the Anarchic One heeds his advice, because Apple’s founder understood the value of designing machines to stimulate humanity – rather than the other way round.