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The zen of technology design

Lenovo's design director, David Hill, says a new generation of computing devices will be shaped by a return to modernism.

More than 25 years ago, when I studied at the University of Kansas, a common exercise required students to design an appliance for consumers in different countries. This forced students to immerse themselves in the culture and environment of different nationalities, and to create objects that merged seamlessly with that environment. Different people and different countries suggested different materials, textures, colors and forms.

More recently, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony handed in their assignments for a global design exercise in console gaming devices. They have three unique visions, but these visions are applicable worldwide. Regardless of where they live, people in Denmark or Singapore or Buenos Aires or Lawrence, Kan., now have similar expectations and requirements in personal computing.

It's basically a return to modernism. People want functions to be apparent without explanation. They want devices to be easy to use. They want materials to express themselves honestly. They are most disappointed by plastic when it pretends to be something that it isn't. Would you prefer a titanium digital camera or a silver-painted plastic one?

Visual language
The Nintendo Revolution is a small, sleek, mysterious obelisk, the size of three standard DVD cases stacked together. It continues Nintendo's heritage of simplicity and sets the benchmark for the gaming industry's overall approach to industrial design.

Developers of the Microsoft Xbox 360 made it reminiscent of a personal computer, slimmed down their previous design and optimized it for a vertical orientation. They are adding significant amounts of new wireless, networking and multimedia functions.

Technologies have shrunk to the point where designers can make PCs look like whatever they want--toasters, cigar boxes, elephant feet.

Three generations of Sony PlayStation design present parallels to the world of personal computers. Ten years ago, the first PlayStation's gray and subdued form derived from the original business orientation of personal computers. Even though it was an entertainment device, the first PlayStation was optimized for function. The PlayStation 2 of five years ago offered thin, vented, black, angular lines. It conveyed power and speed. The new PlayStation 3 presents itself as the cross-section of an aircraft wing.

Technologies have shrunk to the point where designers can make PCs look like whatever they want--toasters, cigar boxes or elephant feet. But should they? When you can make a computer look like whatever you want, your choices should have integrity. They should be respectful of how people use the device. Form doesn't precede function, or vice versa. They are simultaneous choices.

It's the controllers
Designing gaming devices is similar to designing personal computers in that the tactile human interface--the PC keyboard and the console controller--is of paramount importance. As my 15-year-old son, Travis, often says, it's the controller that enables gamers to interact with a game, to interact with other people and to defeat their opponents. Because it controls the gaming experience, the device must fit comfortably in hands of all ages, sizes and shapes. Controller buttons need to be located to provide easy access. Color-coding and shape-coding buttons helps functions to be universally understood by gamers worldwide.

Think about that. The shape and color of buttons on video game controllers will influence the way people interact with technology around the world for generations. Buttons and keyboards are crucial.

The most significant news about Sony PS3, Microsoft Xbox 360 and Nintendo Revolution controllers is that all three will offer wireless. This will free households of the tangled mess that results from multiple controllers connected to a single game console. It will make controllers more mobile, easier to use and easier to misplace, just like the TV remote control.

Nintendo has yet to release information about its Revolution controller--although it's rumored to be, well, revolutionary--and current images of the Microsoft controller appear similar to its efficient, versatile predecessor. The Sony PS3's boomerang-shaped controller deviates significantly from that for the PlayStation 2. In general, if a controller offers greater flexibility in the number of ways it can be held, it provides better maneuverability. Without holding the new boomerang shape, this is impossible to determine.

The shapeless blobs once popularized by cheap consumer electronics such as boom boxes are over. But graceful curves can serve a beautiful purpose. A Henri Moore sculpture is timeless, global and universal. And can you imagine a perfectly square gaming controller?

As we create a new generation of computing devices for people throughout the world, we have much to look forward to. Success for Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony will hinge on each gaming device's ability to appeal to this global marketplace. Their design appeal and their functionality will both play instrumental roles in this success.