I took a minute and looked up Vonage’s Motorola box that I was wrestling with yesterday. I was thinking “boy, that’s an ugly box” and then “that’s an ugly web page too.” But the problem is bigger.

On that nasty page, with its high-school color palette, klunky topography, titles rendered as poorly-anti-aliased graphics, generic ecstatic irrelevant photo-stock model, and hokey swooping curves highlighting a yeah-whatever layout, all rendered in egregiously-invalid HTML, we find a little sticker alerting us that this product featured in the year’s-best list at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show.

And the sticker’s clickable; go ahead and visit that year’s-best list. I did, and while the products struck me as cool, I couldn’t help observing that they were, generally, butt-ugly.

The Motorola is a good example of what’s wrong. Its cover is unappealing black plastic, each edge has its own idiosyncratic curve and no two meet at right angles. It has a meaningless swoosh of shinier black plastic covering one corner, its edges have railway-tie decorations of yet another black plastic substance, and the design statement is completed with three airy swishes in, you guessed it, black-on-black plastic. There is a single “POWER” label in ugly sans-serif monocase which turns out, in operation, to obscure the operation of the LED below it in an irritating way.

Motorola VoIP voice terminal

Move on down that 2004’s-greatest-hits list; box after box is metallic or grey or black (flashes of blue are allowed). With the exception of camera-type devices, there is no discernable relationship between form and function. Curves are de rigueur; but none of them have anything to do with what the device does or how it does it. If I had to pick one name that comes to mind as a design influence—for the (many) products colored black, anyhow—it would be Darth Vader.

Netgear wireless router

The one exception to this rule is the wireless firewall/router from Netgear illustrated above;it is small in size, its shape is both pleasing and unobtrusive, and the (few) visible labels have good typographic values.

There’s a name for this discipline: industrial design. I have a brother who’s a successful industrial designer, and the things he builds, and that are featured in the industrial-design magazines, are a whole lot more handsome than any of the Best Products of 2004. With products, I guess, as with people, intelligence and attractiveness are independent variables.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights

May 22, 2004
· Technology (85 fragments)
· · Gadgets (38 more)

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A full disclosure of my professional interests is on the author page.