Friday, June 10, 2005

Intelligent Design

There's nothing I love more than a well-designed thing. Something that meets the need for which it was intended in a simple and elegant manner. The trouble is good design is hard to find. From the web site with the completely counter-intuitive interface to the push-to-open door with a pull-style handle, examples of poorly designed items abound. Something can look fantastic, but if it doesn't quickly and simply do what you need it to do, then it goes right to the top of my Bad Design list.

Part of the problem with design these days is that we want a single thing to accomplish multiple tasks. It's not just a cell phone - it's also a camera, a PDA, and a mobile e-mail station. That's a pretty big brief for a little phone.

The ability to do a single thing very well is what makes me love my I-Pod shuffle. Its whole purpose in life is to be a small music player. Sure, I can't see what song is playing, but I don't need to. All I need is to have a tiny, light-weight device to play some music. Simple, elegant, perfect design.

I got to thinking about all this design business on Monday, when we took a trip out to Trim Castle in County Meath. The job of a castle is simple - to protect its occupants. Trim Castle has some of the standard issue features that you'd expect in a castle - a moat, outer stone wall fortifications, loads of slitted windows for archers to use when firing arrows at attackers, a single entry point elevated above ground level with retractable stairs or a ladder that could get pulled in when the plundering hoards made their advances.

But the protections at Trim went much deeper than just the steroetypical castle protections. The castle relied heavily on compartmentalization. If attackers managed to get through the door, they'd find themselves in a heavily guarded room. Then, they'd have to get through a massively huge, thick door. The door isn't presently on the castle, but you can see from where the hinges and the bolt-hole were that the door was enormous. The bolt-hole is 8 feet deep. So, say that the crafty attackers managed to defeat the door. They'd find themselves in a sort of airlock room, another guarded room with a thick door preventing them from accessing the main castle area.

For me, the most clever security devices in Trim Castle are the spiral staircases. (Trim has 4 staircases, one for each tower.) Since most fighters were right-handed, the stairways were built in such a way that if you were trying to get up the stairs, the newel post is on your right-hand side. Picture it, you're trying to fight your way up this twisting staircase and you can't see your opponent and your shots are all blocked by a cement post. If you're the "good guy", the newel post is on your left, so you have a clear line of attack on your right-hand side.

The steps are total trip-hazards, on purpose. The steps are uneven in height and have slight variations in shape, so they are not easy to walk up or down. I imagine if you lived in the castle, you'd learn quickly where the wonky trippy steps were. And if you were an invader, you had a good chance of falling on your face - or worse, falling on your back and causing a domino-effect down the staircase.

The castle went through three iterations, with 3 different lords remodeling to their specifications. Security, though, was a common feature. The first incarnation of the castle had enclosed, wooden walkways on the outside of each tower, maybe about half to two-thirds of the way up the castle. These walkways provided excellent vantage points for defending the castle. Their roofs were lined with oilskins, to lessen the chances of flaming arrows setting the whole thing ablaze. But, if a walkway did catch fire, the soldiers were able to step through the window into the castle and then kick loose the supports of the walkway, sending the flaming structure tumbling down on their opponents.

In another phase of remodeling, an embankment was built around the base of the castle. This gave the soldiers another line of defense. They could drop boulders off the top of the castle and the rocks would bounce off the embankment and hit any nearby attackers in the face. Simple, but effective.

There are other examples of elegant security features, but you get the point. A particularly well-design item can also be adapted to changing needs. At a certain point, the residents of Trim Castle felt safe enough that they changed some of the security features into comfort features. For example, a window that would provide a defensible point and an early-warning system was converted into a fireplace for the comfort of the residents. Adaptability works best when you're extending the orignal intention to a related need. Security and comfort are not entirely unrelated concepts, so stretching a security feature into a comfort feature worked.

Good design is difficult to achieve, but if they had it sorted out in 1174, you'd think that with all our technological advancement, we should be able to design things that work and work well.


At 13 June 2005 at 19:00, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great bit of writing about good design!
- Shane

At 15 June 2005 at 02:19, Blogger Career Guy said...

You probably already know this, but I distrust things that try to multitask. There's bound to be something they don't do well. Take Mop 'n' Glow, for example. It may clean the floor reasonably well, but the "Glow" part doesn't last very long. I am also skeptical of digital cameras that can do all sorts of things. Doesn't mean I won't eventually buy one, but I'll do it warily.

BTW--I loved your description of the castle. A great bit of travel writing. Now I don't have to go there--I feel as though I've already been!

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