Illustration by Matter

In Praise of Imperfection

By Max Burton

What is the price of perfection? In design, we are challenged to achieve excellence in everything we make. But can excellence be equated with perfection? Can we, should we, design products that create a certain degree of friction so that the user can actually have a memorable experience? After all, friction is embedded in the human experience. Perhaps surrounding ourselves with texture-less, featureless, frictionless products has taken us down an already troublesome path. Ageless faces. Tasteless tomatoes. Perfect products. Designer babies?

I have spent 30 years watching people engage with products — everything from vegetable peelers to laptops. What I see increasingly is that, whereas before we tried to bring the product up to the standards of the user — humanizing the object so that it conformed more to the individual’s needs — now it feels as though we have to bring the user up to the standards of the product.

When the object is more perfect than the user, the user becomes increasingly beholden to the object. Here are all of these gadgets we use, basically saying “I, the product, am better than you, and if there’s something wrong, it’s your fault, not mine.” Do we have some ethical obligation to stem this tide? If not, through the perfection of things we use in our lives, are we contributing to a design philosophy that undermines our humanity?

When it comes right down to it, as designers, as creative people, we want people to feel, whether it is the object in one’s hand or the experience of using it. And in order to feel, perhaps we need to embrace chance, yield to imperfection, and invite moments of friction back into design and back into life. After all, if life is frictionless, there is no emotion. Without emotion, there is no life.

LEICA M4

The success of Airbnb has a lot to do with the uniqueness of each home compared to the uniformity and anonymity of hotel chains. A cappuccino made at a local artisanal coffee shop may be arbitrarily different from the last cup, but its ‘difference’ is more interesting than the sameness of a Starbucks Frappuccino that has been reduced to a predictable formula.

Airbnb

Our challenge is to embrace friction as an antidote to the cult of perfection. We want to challenge the notion that quality means crisp edges and perfectly consistent colors and textures, turning design into a science.

Here’s concept #1 to get us started: reimagining the personal computer. Why, in the face of our reliance on precious metals, must it be made of aluminum? We own it for a year, maybe two, and then it becomes landfill somewhere far from our daily lives. As metal continues to answer the contemporary demand for perfection, we suggest something more human: a computer made from wax cardboard. The material welcomes the bashes, the dents, the stains, and it gets better. While your human touch changes it, it will become more your own. According to the way you hold it, it will actually contour to your body, becoming your own truly personal computer. And by the by — it’s easy to recycle because you can just rip out the electronics and voila: you help reduce the need for very precious metal.

In order to consider such a proposal, though, we have to embrace the notion that not every object or experience will be perfectly alike. If we do, our obsessive compulsiveness for perfection will be cured, and we can go back to feeling uniquely human.


Max Burton is Chief Designer and founder of Matter.