Good Design, Good Images

Dieter Rams is a name that every designer knows. A german industrial designer most closely associated with Braun products, Rams is often quoted for his ten principles of design. What I'm going to try to do in this article is use those principles to describe a bit about the current state of cameras and of photographs simultaneously. Okay, maybe not simultaneously, but playing off one another using the design principal as a point of focus. 

Good design is innovative — We've had a few big innovations in camera design over my lifetime: SLRs, autofocus, digital, DSLRs, mirrorless. Lots of people get hung up on the word "innovation" and use it in strange, contorted ways. So let's work on that word first. Innovation is newness incarnate. New in the sense that we haven't seen that form, use, combination, or execution before, not that it is just the latest version of something. The latest Toyota Corolla is not innovative even if it is technically "new." A Corolla with three wheels and powered by a small nuclear reactor would be innovative, as it's a "new" we haven't seen before. 

Innovations by themselves aren't necessarily always good or successful. The Concorde was innovative, but it didn't carry many passengers, made loud booms, and had terrible fuel efficiency. The Xerox Star was an innovative early computer, but it wasn't successful. 

The camera industry has had a few forms of innovation recently. Larger sensors, phase detect on sensors, removal of the mirror system, addition of more processing power, use of the sensor for video and stills. The question is whether those innovations lead to user breakthroughs. So let's talk about images for a minute. Are your images different (better) because of those things? In some technical senses, yes, but in asthetic realms, not so much. The exception to this has been large sensor video, where there's been a revolution in the types of users that can do something that only Hollywood had been able to do before. To some degree, video in DSLRs coupled with low-cost editing programs was a lot like the first laser printer and page layout program: suddenly the masses could create products that looked like the professional publishers produced.

But let's carry this a little further: have you innovated with your images lately? Is there a newness of form in them that wasn't there before? Or are you simply repeating the same image formulas as before? Anyone can take a picture of Half Dome. Can you take a picture of Half Dome that people will look at and say "haven't seen that before"? 

We ask our camera companies to be innovative (at least I do, not sure about you ;~), but we too must be innovative in our imagery. If you've been paying attention to the teaching point images on the front page of this site over the past two years, you'll find that only about half of those weekly images I've presented come close to "conventional" photography. I experiment and go "off course" a lot. I try things that I haven't tried before. I push my equipment in ways that they weren't always designed to go. I want innovative equipment, but I want to be innovative with what I do with it, too. So should you.

Good design makes a product useful — And boom, we're right where I finished the last point. Rams' goal was not just to make a product, but to make a useful product. My goal in taking a photograph or making a video is to make a useful one. 

I've railed on camera makers for not quite getting the "useful" part. They give us bits and pieces of that, then put some impediment in the way. For example, with the Nikon pro bodies we've long had banks of settings. That's useful, as it allows us to configure our cameras the way we need them to work. But then Nikon has never integrated those banks so that we can set the entire camera the way we want it to work at once. Instead, we have to change multiple banks independently to get to a master configuration we want. That's not useful, it's an impediment. 

As photographers, our images need to do the same thing: get the viewer to the intended reaction without anything getting in the way. The basics are a given: exposure is "correct" for what we're doing, no extraneous elements intruding, focus correctly assigned, etc. But there's much more to just doing the basics, as Nikon and the other camera companies need to learn. As image makers, are we controlling the viewer's eye completely? No? Why not? Did we think through what it was we wanted the image to say? No? Why not? We're telling a story, so it's incumbent upon us to tell a complete story and tell it usefully (without impediment). If your images aren't selling, if they're not getting the response you want, maybe they're not useful.

Good design is aesthetic — By this, I believe Rams' mostly meant beautiful, but I'd amend that to "appealing." Good design should attract the customer or viewer. 

Believe it or not, this is one of the most difficult aspects of design. When you make a product like a camera, it has a function. That function has a lot of arbitrary elements to it. To capture all those photons in low light from afar, you need a large sensor and a fast, long lens. There's a bigness associated with that, and big generally isn't regarded as beautiful or appealing on its own. But turn it around to the other side: if part of my function for a camera is to be carried in a shirt pocket everywhere, I must make the item small (or at least collapsible into small). Again, there are some arbitrary physical elements that may get in the way of the function, and the function may get in the way of the aesthetic. 

Aesthetic is something that Apple has been getting right a lot lately. Ditto Samsung (though I suspect Apple would say that some of that is copying ;~). The camera companies? Less so. Many cameras are just carrying forward old design aesthetics because that's easier than trying to get it completely right. I applaud Sony for trying something different (NEX), but as you'll see in the next principal, you can't just get one of Rams' principles right, you have to get them all right together. 

But how many of us as image makers are doing the same exact thing as the camera makers? Yep. We all fall into that bad habit: we carry forward old image aesthetics because it worked for us before and we know how to do that now, so it's easy. But images go through fads. If you haven't read Sontag's On Photography, you need to. One of her premises is that we all stand on the shoulders of the images that came before us. If all we do is imitate or continue those images, they get stale and fall out of favor. 

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest something: all those admonitions against "Photoshopping images": throw them away. I deliberately spend time with images in Photoshop seeing what I can do with them; I don't avoid Photoshop. I'm looking for the next aesthetic. A better aesthetic than I currently have. An aesthetic you might have not seen before (Rams' principal #1). If it takes a different camera, lens, exposure, technique, or post-processing to achieve that, then that's what it takes. I couldn't care less about arbitrary rules in contests (I don't enter them) or with editors (it's mostly a barrier to entry, not a hard and fast rule; I don't know of a publication that wouldn't use a manipulated image if it meets there needs, they'll just label it as manipulated).

Aesthetics change, so the camera companies must change, and so must you as a photographer. Same old, same old doesn't get you to good for very long.

Good design makes a product understandable — Oh oh, here we go. I feel a rant coming on. Suppress. Suppress. Ahhhrrrrggg!

How understandable is your camera? Would your mother say the same thing? Right, didn't think so.

The early NEX models violated this principal so badly it was painful. Sometimes you pressed a button and got a ring display that matched the ring you were supposed to turn, sometimes you got a menu system that didn't look like a menu system, sometimes you got a list of things to choose from. There was no rhyme nor reason to this (since improved significantly, but still not fixed completely in recent NEX models). It's really easy to design something that is un-understandable. It's even easy to design something that's understandable and then make it overly complex and not so understandable. Finger gestures on track pads, for instance. A few common gestures make a lot of sense. Pinch to make smaller, for instance. The action you have to do matches what happens. Now try the Open Launchpad gesture on a Mac. Hey, wait, isn't that just a big pinch? And three-finger drags and swipes? You can carry things too far if you're not careful.

So how does all this apply to our images? Try this: show someone one of your photographs and ask them to give it a title. If your title is "Half Dome is Big" and your viewer's title is "Big Rock," something's wrong, isn't it? Half Dome has a classic profile and face, but if you violate those and use another angle that's rarely seen, the viewer might not recognize it. If your goal was to take a picture of Half Dome that people don't normally see, great, but if you were just trying to out Ansel Ansel, not so great. "Moon over Half Dome" is a photo by Ansel Adams that we pretty much all would come up with the title of, after all. 

Make sure your image says to viewers what you wanted it to say to viewers. The only way you can do this is by testing your assumptions (just as camera manufacturers ought to test their product assumptions, but often don't). Enlist viewers. Ask them what they see in your images. Get them to describe your images. Get them to title your images. If the things those viewers say aren't what you thought you were showing, you haven't connected on this point: your image is un-understandable. You need to fix that.

Good design is unobtrusive — Some of you may not remember many of the early compact cars: because of engine, transmission, power train, electronics, and other intrusions, many of the early compacts had sitting positions where one of your legs couldn't stretch as far as the other in one direction or another. In essence, you sat a bit asymmetrically, which isn't exactly comfortable. That's obtrusive design. In an unobtrusive design you shouldn't notice how you're sitting, it should feel natural and the controls of the car should all feel like they're in the right place for you.

Nikon recently made a switch in hand position on their professional cameras. This isn't the first time they've made slight changes like that: you'll also notice that in very early pro bodies the Command dials were exactly horizontal and not slightly off horizontal. Nikon has been working with an Italian designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, since the F3, and many of these position and hand tweaks have come at his suggestion. 

Now, if you're used to the old shutter release position and slope (D3, D3s), the new one (D4) feels a little off to you. That's obtrusive, but I'll bet it's a temporary obtrusiveness, as the new position is indeed a slightly more natural one that stresses the hand less if you're doing what the Nikon design wants you to do (keep your eye at the viewfinder, press a button with the left hand, use the right hand fingers to change a setting while keeping the shutter finger on the shutter release). We can argue all day over whether Nikon did the right thing or not, but what we can't argue about is whether they tried to do the right thing. They did. They were trying to take a little bit of unnaturalness out of the way you hold the camera.

How's that work in images? The manner in which I usually see obtrusiveness appear in images is in visual obstructions. The classic is having a strong line that inhibits eye movement from doing what you want it to do. It's really the same thing Nikon is trying to do with our hands: good images don't make the eyes do unnatural or unwanted things, like stop at an obstruction that's not important otherwise. In an otherwise vertical image (eye should be moving up and/or down fairly freely, as opposed to left/right) a strong horizontal line is like a fence the eye has to get over. You have to be very careful with horizons in vertical images, lest you split the image into two pieces that don't connect well. This is one of the factors behind the cliche: use an S-curve line coming up from a lower corner to your subject. Our eyes follow lines or stop at them. A good S-curve line moving upwards through a vertical image means our eyes follow that upward (unobtrusive). A strong, flat horizon completely across the vertical image will stop our eyes (obtrusive). 

Good design is honest — This is one place where the Japanese consumer electronics firms, including virtually all of the camera makers, fail in Rams' design philosophies. First, the Japanese iterate for the sake of iterating, which isn't particularly honest. Second, we get arbitrary design destinctions that are perhaps helpful to lazy marketers, but don't make sense to customers.

For that latter, let use a Nikon example: the D5200. Why is it that the second level of Nikon DSLR justifies a swivel LCD and the level below and above it dont'? What is so unique about the D5200 user that a swivel display is "honest" for them, but a fixed display is "honest" for the D3200 and D7000 user? This is an arbitrary design decision to help differentiate products that don't otherwise have a lot of obvious differentiation. Either that product doesn't need to exist, or the marketers are lazy and asking for design decisions that make their job easier, IMHO. 

Consider that you could have a D5200 non-swivel and a D5200s swivel model. If making the LCD swivel costs more, you charge more for the D5200s. Maybe there are other things that go along with swivel, say more remote control options. That would be an honest model differentiation. The current D3200/D5200 differentiation isn't particularly honest in design. 

But this same thing applies to images, too. Indeed, this is where the anti-Photoshop argument starts to come into play for some. Some Photoshopping is dishonest. When Iran Photoshopped some extra missiles successfully firing into their PR shots, that was dishonest: it represented something that didn't actually happen. Things get more interesting than that, though. For example, what if I'm taking a landscape shot whose primary focus is the landscape and sky. Somewhere in the scene is a small piece of trash. Now most photographers don't actually notice the trash because of the speed and carelessness in which they work. Had they seen it, they would have removed it from the scene. So why shouldn't they be able to Photoshop it out afterward? Or more interesting: what if the area in which the trash appeared was marked off limits, as many places in our National Parks are? Which is the honest answer here: (1) jump the fence and remove the trash, violating park regulations; (2) leave the trash and Photoshop it out later; or (3) leave the trash in the image? 

There's actually not a right answer to that last question. Honesty is a bit personal. You have to have a personal ethic that you work within, and you have to make decisions that are "honest" to that ethic. My personal answer is a complex combination of #1 and #2. I won't jump the fence if others are around, because I don't want others to think this is an acceptable thing to do (people "follow the leader" in many things we do, unfortunately). I don't do it with other people around because of discussions I've had with park rangers and supervisors over the years. They actually support my goal of removing trash (as long as I'm well aware of the potential hazard to crossing the barrier and have judged it to be completely minimal for the purpose I'm doing so). But they also don't want people to think that you can just jump into marked off-access areas any time you want, either, so they don't want others to see examples of doing just that. If I can't live up to the ethic surrounding #1, then I do #2, because had I had the opportunity--in any fashion, including asking a park ranger that came along to remove the trash--I would have removed the trash.

Of course, if the goal of my photograph is to show how much trash is piling up in our National Parks, my answer becomes entirely different, doesn't it? That's because the "honesty" of the shot requires that I show what the trash does to the pretty place. Now if you add trash to the scene to make the point in your image—even if you remove it later—you're back to being dishonest, aren't you? 

Getting honesty into images (and products for that matter), is one of the toughest jobs there is. 

Good design is long-lasting — Nikon has used the button-and-dial interface and the F-mount for decades now. The basic form of their interchangeable lens cameras has survived tons of iteration. Someone who used an N8008 back in the 80's can pick up a D7000 today and recognize much of the control DNA. Likewise, once Apple came up with that first PowerBook in an aluminum case, the basic design hasn't changed a lot. Today's MacBook Pro is recognizably similar to the one I bought almost 10 years ago, just simpler and smaller with the same basic design.

This is actually one of the ways you determine where to put your camera dollars (or at least you should). A camera line that is gyrating all over in design tends to mean that the company producing it hasn't found the right design. Sometimes they eventually hit on the right factors. Olympus, in their journey from 4/3 to Pen models to the OM-D has made a lot of twists and turns. The OM-D concept is pretty good, though and has deservedly won a lot of awards and praise. If Olympus doesn't now standardize a full line of OM-D models using the base design, they aren't paying attention. Good design is long-lasting: it establishes a strong base that you then build on for a long time.

Unfortunately, the camera companies got hooked on consumer volumes. Nikon sells over 20 million cameras and lenses a year, for instance. When one part of their line is disrupted--Coolpix by smartphones, for example--you often see flailing in design as the company tries to figure out where the "good" is that will keep them growing in sales. Sometimes there isn't such a place, sometimes there is. But I'd argue that Nikon hasn't found it yet with Coolpix. The S01, S800c, and the AW line all represent different attempts to find some new place that they can latch volume onto to make up for the tougher and tougher sells of their traditional S, L, and P lines. I'm not sure Nikon has found the new "good long-lasting design point" in Coolpix yet.

As image makers, one of the toughest jobs we have is to do it more than once. By "it" I mean take a great image that resonates. The law of averages tells us that everyone with a camera will be in the right place with their camera some day. Short of totally botching that opportunity (wrong exposure, missing the moment, erasing the card, etc.), everyone will take a great image some day if they just keep shooting. 

What makes the great image makers great, though, is the consistency in which they do that. To make it long lasting they have to succeed at a number of things: finding ways to be at the right place at the right time more often (which means scouting, reading weather maps, reading sun charts, and more, for landscape photographers); mastering their equipment so that it doesn't get in the way; and especially establishing something that sets their images apart. 

It's that last one that's been most interesting to me. What set my mentor's images apart was that he could put his body (and thus camera) in places none of the rest of us could (or would). What set Chip Simmons apart was his dedication to only shooting with (colored) lighting that he completely controlled. What set Ansel Adams apart was his dedication to extracting exceptional tonalities from his source material. McNally runs around lighting things. Biggs spends much of his time in the wild. Lanting applies his biology knowledge to capturing his subjects. Krist travels light and small, looking for new angles and approaches. 

All the great photographers have mastered something and extended it over and over to make their imagery long-lasting. Unfortunately, as Sontag suggests, long-lasting isn't a permanent thing. Our need for new visual stimulation led the painters into non-realism and new styles, and the same is true of photography. It used to be that a 35mm lens was wide angle. It provided a unique perspective to the 50mm (normal lens) world. After a while that got stale, and it took a 28mm to deliver a new perspective. Then 24mm. These days, we've got people saying they want wider than 14mm! Everyone's looking for that new thing. When they find it and master it and can replicate it over and over, they have their 15 minutes of fame. After that, it's just a soup can again. 

Good design is thorough, down to the last detail — Probably my biggest pet peeve about camera gear is that we often have to settle for terrible compromises. I've mentioned Nikon's bank settings before: great, we can customize our camera; bad, we can't do that all at once with one control. Nikon failed to get the last detail right. Even on the D7000/D600 models, where we have the C1 and C2 positions to group a group of settings, the details aren't quite right, and it's a pain to get the camera set up the way you want it.

Here's where modern times get in the way. The product cycles on most consumer items are one to two years now, including cameras. The need for a company to sell another "new thing" overrides the ability to get those details right. Heaven help you if you're the engineer who's task is the one that's holding up the critical path to shipment. 

Frankly, that's one reason why you have to get the details right in the first place. Look at Nikon's recent J1, J2, and J3 cameras. The J2 didn't even manage to be there for six months. So here we are on the third entry-level model within an 18-month period, all based upon the same original design decisions for the most part. Things that weren't right with the original model continue to ripple down the newer versions because most of the time is spent putting the "new" in and there's not much in the way of engineering cycles left to change the original model assumptions any more. 

Photographers have time considerations, too. When you're on assignment these days, most budgets try to minimize the amount of time you have because time is money in the business context. No one wants to pay for me to spend four days to get something right, especially if there are model fees and site fees and other fees that pile up while I'm trying to fix something. In some assignments, you may only have 10 or 15 minutes with the subject you're photographing! 

Obviously, one way you get the details right is to practice, practice, practice. Bringing new and untested camera gear to an assignment is almost a guarantee to fail. Not understanding what your gear does and doesn't do will kill you in the paying world of photography. But so will missing a detail. As much as Photoshop is a reality in the commercial world, no one really wants to spend time fixing things in Photoshop. If you failed to notice the creases in the subject's coat or dress and didn't do something about that before taking the shot, the post processing folk will be swearing at you to those that pay the bills. Not a good thing for repeat business ;~).

Those that take workshops from me and have seen me do image analysis and critique know that I'm beyond anal about "the last detail." Students are generally shocked at how many things I can find wrong in an image, even ones we all go "ooooh" and "aaah" over when it first comes up on the projector. Much of my teaching is oriented towards trying to remove those things before they get into your images. In the field, I'm an apparent contradiction. I may seem to work fast (partly a tribute to my mentor, who also worked fast), but I'm constantly analyzing everything. Later this year I'll have much more to say about this, and hopefully both the work and the book to back that up.

But of all of Rams' ideas, this one definitely is one that I find separates the wannabees from the doers. Getting the small things right (as well as the big thing) is what sets apart the great ones from those aspiring to be great.

Good design is environmentally friendly — Where's Thom going to go with this one? I'm surprised you have to ask ;~)

How many cameras have you bought? Let's see: D1, replaced by a D1x, replaced by a D2x, replaced by a D3x, replaced by a D800E. That would be five in thirteen years, or an average of one every 2.6 years. Except that a D3x is recognizable a D1 in terms of controls, layout, function. Why is it I needed a new body every 2.6 years? What I was really after were the firmware updates and the digital (sensor and related components) updates. Instead of a programmable, modular camera I got to deal with getting rid of batteries, accessories, lots of metal and plastic, and so on. Not exactly an environmentally friendly aspect of the pro body design, is it? 

Fortunately, the lenses all still work (though the flash units don't). 

It really would help if the camera makers would think less in terms of boxed units they sell to us, and more in terms of what we want to buy. Would I pay for real firmware updates? You bet I would, and so would you if the update actually did all the other things that Rams' asked for. (We have to alter a few of Rams' statements a bit: a firmware update would have to make a product more useful, for example.)

The battery scene alone is a real shame. Proprietary batteries everywhere, constantly changing, all with hazardous materials that require special recycling care. None of the camera makers are really battery makers (exceptions are Panasonic and Sony), so we most often get price mark-ups in the process, too. I personally can't figure out what the camera makers are thinking when it comes to accessories, which includes batteries. They seem to be doing it because it is a source of high profit margin, but then they do it so badly that it doesn't really impact their profit line, if at all. 

I'm not a fan of Apple's move to internal, unreplaceable batteries, but in one way it makes sense: they got out of the messy accessory business. They design batteries to function now, and that is a more honest design point (see above). 

What about images, didn't we get more environmentally friendly by moving from chemicals to bits? I think the jury is still out on that, especially since we may be using more power to run our digital darkrooms these days, and that power is mostly coming from environmentally unfriendly sources still. 

But I want to speak to something a bit different here. We're constantly bombarded by images. They're nearly unavoidable (one reason why I like the backcountry, it gives my visual senses a rest ;~). So why are you making more of them? I think that's a very important question to ask yourself. As you press the shutter release, ask yourself "why?" What's this image going to do in a world filled with images? If the answer is "get lost," then maybe it's not an image worth taking. True, practice is good (see above). True, you have to experiment to learn what you want to do. But some people just take images to take images, and then pollute the world for the rest of us with them. 

In the film days, the classic cliche was the "let me set up the projector and show the slides from my recent vacation." How many times did you hear that line and immediately dread what was coming next? 

Where I'm headed here is a single word: edit. Make sure each image you produce needed to be produced. That when it's displayed it has a chance to stand out, even if for only a moment, in a world where people see thousands of images an hour. I could write a lot more on that subject, but then I wouldn't be editing ;~).

Good design is as little design as possible — The problem once someone has a job is that they believe that their job requires them to do as much as possible. I once had a boss who complained to me that I wasn't hiring enough people. I was in charge of about a third of what the company did, but I had a head count that was about six percent of the overall company. My position was simple: what is that more people might do that my groups weren't doing already? We weren't a make-work charity: my guys and gals were doing exactly what was necessary to produce the products we needed to produce. We rarely missed deadlines. We produced products that were almost immediately recognized for being good and then copied by others. We didn't add bells and whistles that customers didn't need or want. We were trying to design as little as possible, in other words, and doing that required as few employees as necessary.

One metric we used in Silicon Valley all the time was sales per employee. The higher that number was, the more efficient you were, and there was an element of Rams' principle at work, too: if you were truly designing as little as possible, you didn't need large numbers of people to do that. Small was good as long as it produced the "right thing." 

While sales/employee isn't a perfect metric of how design is doing as little as possible, it's part of the picture. In 2011 Canon was at about US$500k per employee, Nikon at US$450k, Apple at US$2.4 million. Olympus was at only US$165k per employee. Cost structures within companies are part of the "least design" principle; it's the old "too many cooks spoil the broth" problem.

A lot of what we fight in camera gear these days falls under this principle. On the one hand, every camera user can think of something their camera doesn't do that they wish it did. But have you ever stopped to think about how many things your camera does that you don't need it to do? The Custom Settings menus on most cameras are now labyrinthian, but are most of those things actually needed in the camera itself? Some of you may not remember this, but the original Nikon Custom Settings were something you programmed once, using your computer or a Sharp Wizard. They didn't intrude upon your every day shooting because they were invisible. As Olympus OM-D E-M5 owners will attest, they sure ain't invisible now (though you can turn them off on that camera and get completely flummoxed as to how to change something). 

A programmable camera would allow us to select only those things that are important to us to show up in the menus and controls, but I'm starting to think that we've gone too far on features. Do we really need a Close-up Pets at Sunset exposure mode? 

In images, here's the thing to remember: include only what you need to show in your photo and only that, no more. Go look at some great images and you'll see over and over again that simplification is often something that the photographer was doing for you: only showing you what you need to see. Ansel Adam's Moonrise over Half Dome? Moon. Half Dome. Very little else. 

That's not to say that there aren't complex relationship images out there. Henri-Cartier Bresson comes to mind, but so do a few other photographers, as well. But for those to work, everything in the scene has to work, too. They're still using the Rams' principle, they're just juggling far more elements successfully than you or I are managing.

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