Many products are ugly. Many are beautiful. But how many are the epitome of these extremes all at once?
Terry Gross interviews C. J. Shivers about his new book, The Gun. He talks about the history of the world’s most beloved killing machine, and of the beautiful, simple design of the AK-47, which I found utterly fascinating and intriguing when viewed through – as everything I look at is – the filter of interaction design.
On ease-of-use and human-centered design.
“It’s out there. And the weapon that’s out there is the weapon that tends to get used. But the other reason is the design. It’s very, very simple. It’s almost intuitive. You can take it apart very quickly and put it back together just as quickly. It’s simple to clean. It’s simple to maintain. Most of the Kalashnikovs out there are very well made for the actual conditions of war. It has an excellent protective finish. It’s chromed on the inside of its barrel and its chamber. All of these things mean that if you’re not particularly attentive in caring for it, it’s still going to last and it’s still going to work.”
On the one hand, would that all products be designed for such sustainability and longevity. The designers of this gun couldn’t have met Massimo Vignelli’s directive more succinctly if they’d tried:
We have a responsibility to our clients, ourselves, and the society in general to design things that will not become obsolete. Obsolescence, particularly planned obsolescence, is a social crime whose ultimate goal is only profit for the few over the masses. Designers should not be part of this despicable conspiracy.
On the other hand, what does this say about our society that a product designed for killing multiple living beings at once is an established model for great design? And does the fact that it rejects through good planning, form, and materials selection the “despicable conspiracy” of obsolence buy it any karmic points toward redemption? Which is worse, Henry Ford, GM, Sony, Apple and the multitude of corporate conglomerates who intentionally design fun products for obsolescence, or Mikhael Kalashnikov, for adhering to good, sustainable design, but deliberately designing to kill? Granted, electronic products and cars aren’t killing machines. Not in the literal sense that a gun is. But what of the affects they have on the environment? Look at what havoc the automobile has wreaked. What about the culpability of those famed modern, urban planners, like Robert Moses, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe, whose car-centric urban planning can be blamed for a multitude of illnesses and deaths? What of the chemists and marketers who design fast foods, resulting in death and disease for millions? What of the blood diamonds and blood minerals and blood metals it takes to produce our endless quest for faster, cooler, sexier personal electronics? An AK-47 will last for decades. My iPhone is good for two years, tops. My Macbook? Maybe four.
A Twinkie will also last for decades and will undoubtedly kill if eaten in large enough quantities, but I digress.
That aside, I’m in no way promoting guns. Or unclear of the fact that guns are made explicitly for the singular goal of murder. But I still find the parallels of human destruction absorbing and thought-provoking. In the obvious instance, deplorable. But when under the guise of capitalism, negligible. And I find the design process for a killing machine morbidly scintillating. In the audio interview, Shivers also talks about the usability testing they did – on live goat herds, cadavers, and human heads. Can you imagine? Writing test cases for a gun? But it’s product design – of course! Effective functionality and ergonomics must be confirmed through testing. Here, the author talks about designing for the novice user, aka:
On building better personas and use cases.
“The other thing it tells you … is that, in some ways, it’s a mediocre weapon. It’s not especially accurate and it’s used often by people who are often not especially skilled. I’m one of them, but there’s many, many more [people] who have been ambushed by Kalashnikovs and not been shot. Because they miss you. And there’s reasons they miss you that are rooted in the weapon’s own design and also in the training of the people that carry them.”
“The weapon is designed with a relatively short barrel and it’s designed with a relatively loose fit of its parts and it’s got a heavy operating system and it shoots a medium-powered ammunition. At longer ranges, it’s actually not incredibly effective. At shorter ranges, it’s a terrible weapon. But at longer ranges — which is pretty common in the arid regions such as Afghanistan and Iraq where there’s not a lot of vegetation — they often miss.”
Regardless, this weapon continues to be favored among armies and rebels around the world. Despite its flaws, it gained popularity because of its better design and superior engineering in comparison to the American M-16.
Ugly, foul interactions indeed. But cloaked, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, in beautiful design.