“Good design aims to promote those features and values that are timeless. Truly great design embodies them in a way that cannot be forgotten.”

A lot of people get nostalgic when faced with the often intrusive evolution of technology.

Partly it’s down to our willingness and ability to change; our adaptiveness. New things can be overwhelming, too complex to justify upgrading from the current norm. I often find myself saying “What does this solve? I don’t have a problem with the old way!”. Though some advances are obviously revolutionary improvements I can understand the pining for simpler times; I’m at my most relaxed when I take a break away from technology — offline.

While occasionally technological advances lose a particular charm of what they’re replacing — does an email compare to a hand written letter, even if the same emotion was involved? — I think it’s more often a case of remembering the grass being greener (to butcher a phrase). But then again I’m still young. I’d imagine with a few more decades under my belt I’ll be quiet contempt with the status quo.

No farewell

This all brings me neatly to the digital book and its reader, of which many brands are available but for me the Kindle is synonymous with the “e-book”. (I’m an Amazon-fanboy, but let’s get past that, you’ll understand the mention later.)

The printed word was a revolution for the human mind. The printing presses of the 1400s through to today have had an unimaginable impact on our society and their product, the book, is something so dear to our hearts. Perhaps rightly so, should we not feel nostalgic when a seismic shift in technology begins to overthrow something so impossibly special?

I’ve overheard many people lament the book and its adversity. The beauty of a tactile object is said to be lost in our cold, digital future. “There’s something about holding a book/turning a page…” they say. I think that’s hipster bullshit. Allow me to explain:

The first three definitions of “book” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary are:

  1. a: a set of written sheets of skin or paper or tablets of wood or ivory, b: a set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together into a volume,  c: a long written or printed literary composition [...]
  2. capitalized : BIBLE
  3. something that yields knowledge or understanding

The “hipsters” get nostalgic about the first definition but if we look further — giving #2 a wide berth — we reach the true value of a book; the knowledge, the understanding. A book is a very simple product and if we extract its core essence it exists purely of written ideas and thoughts. This is why digital books are such a seamless evolution. They do not leave behind anything that is truly valuable and only improve the experience of reading. The material things people get nostalgic about are circumstantial and when you think about it, they are actually intrusive to the true value of a book:

  • The physical book is heavy and spacious, it is a burdon to carry and to keep.
  • It deteriorates overtime and takes with it the knowledge inside.
  • The act of page-turning interrupts reading due only to inherent physical limitations.

I love the idea of digital books because they maintain what is so simple and pure about reading. Yet at the same time they throw away the contraints of the previous generation and introduce new improvements. I can hold my whole library on one device. I can access and read my book on multiple devices. I can access new books without visiting a store or waiting for a delivery.

Digital books maintain and improve access to written knowledge. There’s no farewell here. Nothing to get nostalgic over — at least — nothing to be concerned about.

I can’t speak for everyone when I say the “old ways” are mostly sentimental nonsense but I hope you see my point. I have fond memories of libraries and book stores; secondary experiences that younger generations won’t get chance to repeat, but is that their loss? I much prefer my access to digital books in today’s world. The more I remember back the more I realise those fond memories rest on the final success of finding great books to read. There were probably many more forgotten experiences of “out of stock” books, missing pages and missed return dates.

Designing memories

In the season 1 finale of the TV show Mad Men (set in a 1960s advertising agency) they play on this idea of nostalgia with similar thinking (watch on YouTube). Despite being fiction the ads message brilliantly encapsulates the true value of a product. Compare and contrast to the equally brilliant business card scene from the film American Psycho (watch on YouTube) in which the yuppies demonstrate their affection for all that is superficial and ultimately meaningless.

Whatever we are designing — be it a fictional advertisement or a real world product — we should focus on the true values that often transcend their current embodiment. A business card is not an identity, merely a limited carrier of one suitable for the moment. A website is similar though arguably a lot more suited. I see books in the same light, they’re containers for human thought.

There are occasions when the design of a brand does create a product that is more than a vessel for its true value. Think of the designer’s favourite: the Polaroid camera. Though outdated and inferior, its brand and associated nostalgic memories thereof have created something unique. We all know photography is better on an SLR (or maybe a digital SLR) but the Polaroid created its own identity to attached these memories. It became more than a facilitator. Sony’s Walkman of the 80s and 90s is another example. For me, Amazon’s Kindle is showing signs of joining the ranks, though I suspect it will be replaced by newer devices long before that point.

Good design aims to promote those features and values that are timeless. Truly great design embodies them in a way that cannot be forgotten.