Good Design, Good Images

Part One of Two

Dieter Rams is a name that every designer knows. A german industrial designer most closely associated with Braun products, Rams is often quoted for his ten principles of design. What I'm going to try to do in this two-part article is use those principles to describe a bit about the current state of cameras and of photographs simultaneously. Okay, maybe not simultaneously, but playing off one another using the design principal as a point of focus. This is part one (first five principles). Part two is here.

Good design is innovative -- We've had a few big innovations in camera design over my lifetime: SLRs, autofocus, digital, DSLRs, mirrorless. Lots of people get hung up on the word "innovation" and use it in strange, contorted ways. So let's work on that word first. Innovation is newness incarnate. New in the sense that we haven't seen that form, use, combination, or execution before, not that it is just the latest version of something. The latest Toyota Corolla is not innovative even if it is technically "new." A Corolla with three wheels and powered by a small nuclear reactor would be innovative, as it's a "new" we haven't seen before.

Innovations by themselves aren't necessarily always good or successful. The Concorde was innovative, but it didn't carry many passengers, made loud booms, and had terrible fuel efficiency. The Xerox Star was an innovative early computer, but it wasn't successful.

The camera industry has had a few forms of innovation recently. Larger sensors, phase detect on sensors, removal of the mirror system, addition of more processing power, use of the sensor for video and stills. The question is whether those innovations lead to user breakthroughs. So let's talk about images for a minute. Are your images different (better) because of those things? In some technical senses, yes, but in asthetic realms, not so much. The exception to this has been large sensor video, where there's been a revolution in the types of users that can do something that only Hollywood had been able to do before. To some degree, video in DSLRs coupled with low-cost editing programs was a lot like the first laser printer and page layout program: suddenly the masses could create products that looked like the professional publishers produced.

But let's carry this a little further: have you innovated with your images lately? Is there a newness of form in them that wasn't there before? Or are you simply repeating the same image formulas as before? Anyone can take a picture of Half Dome. Can you take a picture of Half Dome that people will look at and say "haven't seen that before"?

We ask our camera companies to be innovative (at least I do, not sure about you ;~), but we too must be innovative in our imagery. If you've been paying attention to the teaching point images on the front page of this site over the past two years, you'll find that only about half of those weekly images I've presented come close to "conventional" photography. I experiment and go "off course" a lot. I try things that I haven't tried before. I push my equipment in ways that they weren't always designed to go. I want innovative equipment, but I want to be innovative with what I do with it, too. So should you.

Good design makes a product useful -- And boom, we're right where I finished the last point. Rams' goal was not just to make a product, but to make a useful product. My goal in taking a photograph or making a video is to make a useful one.

I've railed on camera makers for not quite getting the "useful" part. They give us bits and pieces of that, then put some impediment in the way. For example, with the Nikon pro bodies we've long had banks of settings. That's useful, as it allows us to configure our cameras the way we need them to work. But then Nikon has never integrated those banks so that we can set the entire camera the way we want it to work at once. Instead, we have to change multiple banks independently to get to a master configuration we want. That's not useful, it's an impediment.

As photographers, our images need to do the same thing: get the viewer to the intended reaction without anything getting in the way. The basics are a given: exposure is "correct" for what we're doing, no extraneous elements intruding, focus correctly assigned, etc. But there's much more to just doing the basics, as Nikon and the other camera companies need to learn. As image makers, are we controlling the viewer's eye completely? No? Why not? Did we think through what it was we wanted the image to say? No? Why not? We're telling a story, so it's incumbent upon us to tell a complete story and tell it usefully (without impediment). If your images aren't selling, if they're not getting the response you want, maybe they're not useful.

Good design is aesthetic -- By this, I believe Rams' mostly meant beautiful, but I'd amend that to "appealing." Good design should attract the customer or viewer.

Believe it or not, this is one of the most difficult aspects of design. When you make a product like a camera, it has a function. That function has a lot of arbitrary elements to it. To capture all those photons in low light from afar, you need a large sensor and a fast, long lens. There's a bigness associated with that, and big generally isn't regarded as beautiful or appealing on its own. But turn it around to the other side: if part of my function for a camera is to be carried in a shirt pocket everywhere, I must make the item small (or at least collapsible into small). Again, there are some arbitrary physical elements that may get in the way of the function, and the function may get in the way of the aesthetic.

Aesthetic is something that Apple has been getting right a lot lately. Ditto Samsung (though I suspect Apple would say that some of that is copying ;~). The camera companies? Less so. Many cameras are just carrying forward old design aesthetics because that's easier than trying to get it completely right. I applaud Sony for trying something different (NEX), but as you'll see in the next principal, you can't just get one of Rams' principles right, you have to get them all right together.

But how many of us as image makers are doing the same exact thing as the camera makers? Yep. We all fall into that bad habit: we carry forward old image aesthetics because it worked for us before and we know how to do that now, so it's easy. But images go through fads. If you haven't read Sontag's On Photography, you need to. One of her premises is that we all stand on the shoulders of the images that came before us. If all we do is imitate or continue those images, they get stale and fall out of favor.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest something: all those admonitions against "Photoshopping images": throw them away. I deliberately spend time with images in Photoshop seeing what I can do with them; I don't avoid Photoshop. I'm looking for the next aesthetic. A better aesthetic than I currently have. An aesthetic you might have not seen before (Rams' principal #1). If it takes a different camera, lens, exposure, technique, or post-processing to achieve that, then that's what it takes. I couldn't care less about arbitrary rules in contests (I don't enter them) or with editors (it's mostly a barrier to entry, not a hard and fast rule; I don't know of a publication that wouldn't use a manipulated image if it meets there needs, they'll just label it as manipulated).

Aesthetics change, so the camera companies must change, and so must you as a photographer. Same old, same old doesn't get you to good for very long.

Good design makes a product understandable -- Oh oh, here we go. I feel a rant coming on. Suppress. Suppress. Ahhhrrrrggg!

How understandable is your camera? Would your mother say the same thing? Right, didn't think so.

The early NEX models violated this principal so badly it was painful. Sometimes you pressed a button and got a ring display that matched the ring you were supposed to turn, sometimes you got a menu system that didn't look like a menu system, sometimes you got a list of things to choose from. There was no rhyme nor reason to this (since improved significantly, but still not fixed completely in recent NEX models). It's really easy to design something that is un-understandable. It's even easy to design something that's understandable and then make it overly complex and not so understandable. Finger gestures on track pads, for instance. A few common gestures make a lot of sense. Pinch to make smaller, for instance. The action you have to do matches what happens. Now try the Open Launchpad gesture on a Mac. Hey, wait, isn't that just a big pinch? And three-finger drags and swipes? You can carry things too far if you're not careful.

So how does all this apply to our images? Try this: show someone one of your photographs and ask them to give it a title. If your title is "Half Dome is Big" and your viewer's title is "Big Rock," something's wrong, isn't it? Half Dome has a classic profile and face, but if you violate those and use another angle that's rarely seen, the viewer might not recognize it. If your goal was to take a picture of Half Dome that people don't normally see, great, but if you were just trying to out Ansel Ansel, not so great. "Moon over Half Dome" is a photo by Ansel Adams that we pretty much all would come up with the title of, after all.

Make sure your image says to viewers what you wanted it to say to viewers. The only way you can do this is by testing your assumptions (just as camera manufacturers ought to test their product assumptions, but often don't). Enlist viewers. Ask them what they see in your images. Get them to describe your images. Get them to title your images. If the things those viewers say aren't what you thought you were showing, you haven't connected on this point: your image is un-understandable. You need to fix that.

Good design is unobtrusive -- Some of you may not remember many of the early compact cars: because of engine, transmission, power train, electronics, and other intrusions, many of the early compacts had sitting positions where one of your legs couldn't stretch as far as the other in one direction or another. In essence, you sat a bit assymetrically, which isn't exactly comfortable. That's obtrusive design. In an unobtrusive design you shouldn't notice how you're sitting, it should feel natural and the controls of the car should all feel like they're in the right place for you.

Nikon recently made a switch in hand position on their professional cameras. This isn't the first time they've made slight changes like that: you'll also notice that in very early pro bodies the Command dials were exactly horizontal and not slightly off horizontal. Nikon has been working with an Italian designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, since the F3, and many of these position and hand tweaks have come at his suggestion.

Now, if you're used to the old shutter release position and slope (D3, D3s), the new one (D4) feels a little off to you. That's obtrusive, but I'll bet it's a temporary obtrusiveness, as the new position is indeed a slightly more natural one that stresses the hand less if you're doing what the Nikon design wants you to do (keep your eye at the viewfinder, press a button with the left hand, use the right hand fingers to change a setting while keeping the shutter finger on the shutter release). We can argue all day over whether Nikon did the right thing or not, but what we can't argue about is whether they tried to do the right thing. They did. They were trying to take a little bit of unnaturalness out of the way you hold the camera.

How's that work in images? The manner in which I usually see obtrusiveness appear in images is in visual obstructions. The classic is having a strong line that inhibits eye movement from doing what you want it to do. It's really the same thing Nikon is trying to do with our hands: good images don't make the eyes do unnatural or unwanted things, like stop at an obstruction that's not important otherwise. In an otherwise vertical image (eye should be moving up and/or down fairly freely, as opposed to left/right) a strong horizontal line is like a fence the eye has to get over. You have to be very careful with horizons in vertical images, lest you split the image into two pieces that don't connect well. This is one of the factors behind the cliche: use an S-curve line coming up from a lower corner to your subject. Our eyes follow lines or stop at them. A good S-curve line moving upwards through a vertical image means our eyes follow that upward (unobtrusive). A strong, flat horizon completely across the vertical image will stop our eyes (obtrusive). | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | contact Thom at

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