Oliver Reichenstein: “Good Design is Invisible”

Oliver Reichenstein is the founder and director of Information Architects (iA), the Tokyo, Zurich, and Berlin-based design agency. The company has found recent success in iOS and Mac app development. Writer for iPad is a minimalist text editor (I have it installed on my iPad, and highly recommend it), and per The Verge, “its focus-enhancing combination of sparse visuals and refined typography” has since made the leap to OS X and the iPhone.  Reichenstein recently took the time to answer some of questions on design and development with The Verge:

On invisibility of good design:

To give you an idea, with the new Retina displays we had to optimize the typeface so it looks like it used to look on the iPad 2. To do this we had to grade the typeface, producing subtly different versions for each class of display so they have the same visual weight.

To the user the type looks exactly the same on the retina display as on the iPad 2. This required a lot of tweaking from our side (to find the right definition), and the deep professional knowledge of Bold Monday. Users don’t notice this, but they don’t need to. Good user interface design takes care of irritations before they appear.

Good design is invisible. Good screen design happens in the subatomic level of microtypography (the exact definition of a typeface), the invisible grid of macrotypography (how the typeface is used), and the invisible world of interaction design and information architecture. Minimum input, maximum output, with minimal conscious thought is what screen designers focus on. And just as type designers and engineers we do not try to find the perfect solution but the best compromise.

On the origin of iA Writer:

There were so many instances leading to it. I designed my first text editor in the early eighties. I even created a pixel font on a 5 x 5 pixel grid for the text editor. I did all that so I could see more text on the 256 x 192 resolution of my Dragon 32. Some of the ideas came from earning my philosophy student living as an informatics teacher in the nineties teaching MS Word and informatics, desperately trying to get pupils to stop fumbling and to start writing.

The biggest motivation to build iA Writer came from the mad idea to create our own hardware. A digital writing machine (the German word for typewriter). Apparently it is not that hard to produce hardware anymore if you have the right contacts in China. It is still madness for a small studio though. But months after our first sketches Apple presented the iPad, and then producing our own hardware was not necessary anymore.

The Mac version happened because the iOS version was such a big success. We tried to duplicate the same user experience in a completely different environment, which took a fair amount of time to do — and only a couple of weeks to copy.

The interview is also worth reading to get an idea of how Japanese and Western design differ in concept and execution.  As Oliver notes, Japanese web or app design is not comparable to Japanese art, graphic design, or architecture.


Note: this blog post on the iA blog about how to correct Twitter errors is excellent. Highly recommend it.

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