Hope To Better The Person



You can look at technology as a living tree. The trunk bearing branches, the branches leafing out. Or you can see it as a net, each knot tying up threads from many sides. But the human reality is more intricate than either one. We have been looking at one invention that began pretty purely out of the conception of a need — the hope to change the person who takes pictures from a harried, off-stage observer into someone who is a natural part of the event. No single thread wove this invention. Not lens, not moving mirror, not film chemistry, not clever circuits. They are coordinate — parts of a single strategy, working together to protect and fulfill the original hope. This invention is finally a system. Call it a system of novelties... but even that is not enough.
The camera enters the real world only once it is precisely manufactured in quantity. That process too, reflects a civilized concern. It has its visual beauty. It rewards skill and care with immediate feedback. In the end, it links the inventors, the engineers, the workers, the distributors into one chain of craftsmanship. The user is the final link. The device helps meet the universal need to do things well. It offers as a matter of course, a tool for supplying a rich texture to memory. More than that, thoughtful use can help reveal meaning in the flood of images which makes up so much of human life. We hope the user will fully complete the chain. Gaining as much fun, as much sense of self and as clear participation in the stream of human creativity as did Edwin Land and the team who first made SX-70.

Tom Coates tweeted the link to this video today and added: "...watch that video and tell me that Apple and Jonathan Ive didn't learn tons from stuff like it." I completely agree. Tom's tweet really got me thinking about what those dense, beautifully quote-rich paragraphs above do so well. 

First Eames starts 30,000 ft. above it all, talking about technology as a whole. Talking about big concepts, like the intricacy of human reality. Eames reminds the viewer that they are witnessing a culmination of many parts aimed at one hope for the user. Note that the hope is for the user, not the company. When is the last time a company so clearly expressed hope for their user? (I imagine some of you thought of Apple.) Eames continues on, qualifying that this invention is a "system of novelties." I feel that he is actually downplaying the massive technological feats performed to remind you of how important the end goal was: to make the photographer a natural part of the event — to ultimately make your experience of creativity and life better.

In the second segment, Eames becomes marvelous. He shows the viewer that those who make this product are craftsmen. That their process is beautiful too, full of skill and care. Then Eames brings the viewer into the system, implicitly encouraging you to be a craftsman as well, hoping that you will complete the chain. He expresses that you as a person, have a universal need to do things well and that this product fulfills that. Eames even adds poetic beauty to the process of photography, stating that you will "with thoughtful use", "supply rich texture to memory" and "reveal meaning in... so much human life." Those are lofty goals that suddenly seem easily reachable with this camera. Through honest and beautiful prose, it's as if he has shown you a better version of yourself and then hands you the device to do it. By the end, Eames has painted an image of the world of human creativity and how you can hopefully take your place in it. Just gorgeous. 

It is a testament to Eames and Polaroid, that in today's world of the iPhone and DSLR, I leave that video with inspiration to go take photos and a desire to mess around with an SX-70. I see the parallels between the creation of a Polaroid camera — with it's skill, care, and immediate feedback — and using the product (with its same opportunity for skill, care, and immediate feedback). Does that not feel like an immense feat in today's world for a promotional video to pull off?

Talking to a viewer or potential customer in the manner that Eames did — with a wide view of humanity and with hope for the user — is rarely done well these days. Even rarer so when looking outside of Apple. Like Eames, they show the technical process, explaining a bit of the magic in easier terms, and show how the person can have a better experience when using the product. I pulled two recent videos from Apple that I think have a similar appeal as the Polaroid video above. Apple does a wonderful job at clearly explaining the tech behind Earpods. Suddenly, the complex problem of "designing for every human ear" seems a bit simpler. They also make the appeal of a retina display seem obvious, despite it being a pro-feature: they see the "pro" in all of us. Even a non-professional wants their photos to be beautiful, just like the memories the photos represent. Apple appeals to this idea of our "better self," much like Eames did. 

Ultimately, that's what a good product does, it hopes to better the user. Not with technical specs or price, but with the effect it has on a user and the world around them through function and beauty. A cynic would argue that a good product must also sell, and that I understand. Yes, Apple and Polaroid ultimately hope their products sell and make money. But in both those companies, I would argue that desire for sale had at least some altruism behind it: to keep making better products for better customers. There have been parallels drawn between Edwin Land and Steve Jobs. Both were leaders who publicly expressed a true hope to better their users and make something revolutionary. Now not every company can have such great leadership, able to drive a company towards exceptional products, regardless of cost. But no matter what company, at the design level there should still be a visible hope, through the refinement and quality of the design, that a product will better the user. Even if accounting and marketing just hopes that a product sells, I believe it is the designer's job to hope for betterment of the person using that product.