The essence of design

I still remember my first experience of using a computer.

When I was a 6-year-old, my father took me to his Infosys office. Across the sprawling campus, several PCs were left switched on for anybody to use them. I settled down at one of these PCs and played around with the keyboard and the mouse for hours. I remember clearly the moment I opened a media player and played some music on the machine.

Now we are so used to using computers and smartphones that we may not grasp what a marvelous achievement this is. Take your computer apart to see the cables, the transistors, the hard disks and the integrated circuitry that you actually communicate with when you move the mouse pointer and click a button. Yet, somebody was able to craft an interface that so neatly meshed with the manner in which the human brain works that a 6 year old was able to coax those circuit boards into playing a Beethoven symphony through his mere intuition.

A well designed system meshes with the human brain so well that it obviates the need for a cumbersome user-manual. The buttons, the mouse pointer and everything that you see on a computer screen is a virtual abstraction designed specifically to enable seamless audio, visual and tactile communication with a human user.

Taking that sentiment further, this is exactly how our brains work. There is nothing inherently red about a flower or blue about the sky – those surfaces are merely reflecting electromagnetic waves of specific wavelengths. The rods and the cones in our eyes work in a similar manner to a computer’s circuitry, with the brain taking in their signals to simulate a user interface – our conscious experience. Just as transistors and circuit boards come alive as icons and buttons on a screen, so does the physical world appear in colour, smells, sound and every other sense. Senses exist only so that we can make sense of our natural environment.

Evolution, through a slow and painstaking process, has built our bodies and our brains to mesh seamlessly with our natural environment. The essence of design is to do the opposite to come full circle – to modify the environment to mesh with our bodies and brains.

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