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Thoughts on Optimal Design

Rivendell BikesLately I've been brewing on the theme of optimal design — the idea that there's a perfect, or near perfect design for many objects. By optimal, I mean items which are so well balanced, no improvement of significance can be made on their design. Below are a few examples...

Rivendell Bicycles
The idea of optimal design was clarified in my mind while having a discussion with my blogpal, Michael Ashby, a complete devotee of Rivendell Bicycle Works. Rivendell is a custom bicycle builder in Walnut Creek, California. The Rivendell folks believe there is indeed an optimal bicycle design, built on a foundation of a strong, lugged steel frame, surrounded by solid, reliable and proven components. Optimal bicycles should durable, comfortable and (most of all) fun to ride for a very long time. Rivendell bicycles aren't cheap, but if your bike lasts your lifetime and your son or daughter's lifetime, the cost seems quite reasonable.

Pilot and Palm V PDAs
Along the same line of design thinking was the original Pilot handheld. Jeff Hawkins spent an awful lot of time in the initial design, simplifying and focusing the Pilot's features and purpose. The Pilot was designed to do a few things very well and because of this focus, it was a smash hit. Equivalent to the original Pilot was the Palm V, another nearly perfect design. It was small, thin and lasted a month on a charge, but also offered a handsome appearance for the many business executives who carried it (and likely still do). I still recall how the Palm V was the device to beat. I'd wager the Palm V still has impact on its descendants and competitors.

The Moleskine Notebook
Another item of optimal design is the Moleskine notebook. The size is perfect for a pocket, the cover tough enough to take abuse, paper is high quality, and the elastic strap keeps the cover closed (protecting the interior). The design is so intriguing, Moleskines have a very strong following among artists, engineers and professionals alike. These small notebooks are not cheap compared to many notebooks, but their build quality, optimized design and durability make them very reasonable for people who value these qualities. Just pay a visit to Armand Frasco's Moleskinerie weblog frequented by Moleskine fans and junkies to see the passion.

Apple iPod and iPod Mini
Not much needs to be said about the Apple iPod and iPod Mini, both very popular MP3 players. Again, iPods aren't the cheapest or most featured music players on the market — yet do well and are the target of every competitor. The iPod design combines simplicity with effectiveness in a way that attracts a wide variety of buyers, even though clunkier but cheaper competitors flood the market. Design and quality are very recognizable.

Optimized is not Necessarily Perfection
Now, that's not to say optimal design is necessarily perfect — I'm sure Rivendell bikes have their issues, as I know the other items I've mentioned do. The original Pilot was a bit creaky and had a dim monochrome screen, Moleskines have no way to attach a pen or pencil and the iPod is behind the curve in some ways. Still, even with minor issues, flaws or missing features the items I've mentioned here are generally recognized as optimal designs.

What is Optimal Design?
I believe the description of an optimized design is this — an item that's simple, focused on core tasks/goals, constructed with high quality materials, considerate of the user, and built on previous proven designs or design ideas that have been thoroughly contemplated. An optimal design should have function, practicality and quality held in higher regard than flash, fashion, and glitz. However, an optimal design should still be aesthetically handsome or beautiful and functional. Form follows function.

What are your thoughts on optimal design? What objects or items would you consider optimal designs? How about un-optimal designs? Please leave a comment with your thoughts on the subject — I'd love to hear them.

Reader Comments (2)

Oh, and Michael, thanks for the note on Kogswell bikes -- these look quite nice as well. I hadn't realized the threaded fork issue was a huge deal, but I can see how it could indeed be. Thanks!
August 18, 2004 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
lux said:

"Take a look at items that have been part of human society for hundreds if not thousands of years. Here's a few: A table. A chair. A knife. One could argue that items like these, which have not significantly changed despite thousands of years of societal development, are the true optimal designs."

I agree -- maybe these basic designs would have been better examples of this point after all... I just happened to be thinking of more complex, modern pieces when I put my finers to the keys is all. :-)
August 18, 2004 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde

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