There's a popular theory that good design is, or should be, invisible. It's an appealing idea: you don't think about how to turn a light on, or what the buttons in the elevator mean, unless the design surprises you. That design is invisible the way a fire hydrant is invisible, unless you're trying to park your car or fight a fire, invisible the way Chesterton's invisible man was invisible: too familiar to be noticed. If you're used to simple on-off light switches, your first three-way lightbulb or rheostat can be confusing. If someone decides to get fancy by putting large, raised numbers next to the actual elevator buttons, instead of putting the numbers on the button, suddenly you have to stop and think, probably after you tried to push the gaudy "14" and nothing happened.

The problem is that what makes design invisible is expectations. I have a package of cold medication, generic pseudephedrine hydrochloride. Tiny white pills encased in the usual blisterpacks, with foil on the back. Twenty-four pills to the sheet, with perforations dividing the sheet into twelve groups of two pills each. Obviously, the standard dosage is two pills: take two of these and call me in the morning. Fortunately, I was curious about how often to take them, so I read the instructions, which are printed in the usual tiny type. It turns out that the recommended dosage is one pill. I doubt taking two would kill you, and you'd probably check the label before taking a second dose. Or would you? People with colds often have trouble concentrating, and one of the side effects of the pills is drowsiness. The design is still invisible, but it's invisibly bad, not invisibly good.

And sometimes design is just weird. I had bronchitis last month, and my doctor prescribed an antibiotic and a cough medicine. The cough medicine was the usual liquid; glance at the bottle, and it's clearly red, as usual. When I poured the first dose onto the spoon, I almost dropped the bottle in surprise. The medicine wasn't red, it was clear. The bottle was red. Apparently someone had a deep belief that cough medicine was supposed to be red, and when they decided not to make it red, it got to wear red, so nobody would be surprised until they got it home. There was no reason for the medicine to be red: that's artificial coloring, used to signal that the item in question has also been artificially flavored cherry. But while it's now possible to get artificial grape-flavored cough syrup if you, or the child you plan to dose, hates cherry, someone out there--maybe the same person who decided that itís intuitively obvious that you turn a machine off by pressing "start"--felt that people should be protected from the idea of non-red cough syrup.

Or maybe I was taking too many drugs.


Copyright 1999 Vicki Rosenzweig.

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