How to achieve a Clever Design

Clever design adds value in an obvious way, without adding unnecessary stuff. It’s a type of minimalism. But instead of removing the unnecessary, Clever design is all about adding the valuable parts only. In this way, we are left with an obvious answer that still has character. It’s kind of an abstract concept, I totally get that — so let’s use an example!

Computer mouse as designed by IDEO for the Apple Lisa — 1983

One of the most perfect examples of clever design is the computer mouse, as designed by IDEO for the Apple Lisa Computer in 1983**. A similar interface at the time was the stylus. A stylus made a copy of the screen ‘real-estate’ on your table and gave you a 1:1 relationship between the sensing surface and the screen. This however meant that it took up loads of table space, and when you let go of the stylus the mouse position on the screen moved.

The mouse inverted the sensing of the stylus. Instead of the table being the sensor, the device now was. Any surface became your 1:1 screen-relationship, which made the use of the mouse very natural; and at the same time it came in a small package. It only contained what was needed to make it work, plus your desk became less cluttered which is great. ?

Through extensive user research IDEO designed the perfect mouse, right down to the amount of buttons needed and how loud the click should be. It was so well designed that the design has basically remained unchanged. That is what we call a clever design.

Basics of Clever Design

So.. How do you do this? It’s kind of a job in itself to figure this out for any project, but there is already one thing that you could do right now to take your current project to the next level. This can be done by exploring many ideas for an abstracted solution. That sounds confusing, so I’ll break it down for you

Step 1: Ask Why

Let’s use the example of the mouse as described earlier. When trying to innovate people have the tendency to ask “how can we make a stylus better?”, when the question really should be: “why are we using a stylus?”.

This question allows you to take a step back and ask what the foundational reason is for a project to exist. In this case, we use a stylus because we want to control a pointer on a graphical user interface.

And then you could ask why again, but for the sake of this example we will stop here ?

Step 2: Explore options

Now that you know what the foundational reason is for the project, it’s time to explore many different options for achieving the same ‘solution’. In the above example this could result in:

Step 3: Make a list

Next, it’s important to make a list of the qualities that you are looking for in any solution. Try to keep these qualities reasonably abstract. The trick is (as in all these steps) to not attach a medium to the requirements. For example, instead of saying “I want to draw on a table”; you say “I want to gesture paths on a surface”. The moment you attach a medium, you have closed off any opportunities to explore clever options. In the example case, our list of qualities could be:

  1. It must maintain it’s position on the screen when I leave
  2. It must feel as a 1:1 relationship — e.g. x/y movements on-screen must mirror to x/y movements off-screen
  3. It must enhance speed of productivity
  4. It must allow for detailed / nuanced motion control
  5. It should be usable in a quiet workplace

Step 4: Tick it off

Lastly, you need to use this tick list do figure out which option(s) meet all of your requirements. If they don’t meet them all, try to figure out why this is. Reflect. And then repeat step 2 until you get an option that meets all of your requirements.

In our example:

  • A bad example is: voice commands, because there is no 1:1 relationship and it can’t be used in silence.
  • A good example is: a ‘token’ object that holds a direct position (hint: a mouse), because it meets all 5 of the requirements

Final Tip

Don’t let obsession hit in. Keep your lists concise, and limit the amount of time you need to create ideas. In the end you could work infinitely long to constantly strive to a better form of perfection. When designing something clever, it is important to choose the simplest idea that meets all of your list, and go with it!

And that’s it. Go make something clever!

** Actually the computer mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute. Douglas started the Augmented Research Centre to research how you could ‘augment’ human intelligence using computer hard/software, and in the process built the first mouse prototype with Bill English in 1964. But for now let’s focus on the value added by IDEO in 1983 (almost 20 years later), simply because the mouse Douglas and Bill invented was nowhere near a consumer ready product.