Simplicity in product design is a hard quality to achieve; to strip back all unnecessaries, to make it desirable still and user friendly, and retain its high performance. But that’s what Ludwig Rensch did when he decided to overhaul one of the most everyday, and pretty boring devices: the printer.
In an exclusive chat with The Essential Journal, Ludwig lets us in on the secrets behind remaking a classic.
Tell us about yourself…
I grew up in a small town called Lauffen am Neckar in the south-west of Germany with my parents and two older sisters. I remember that I drew a lot as a child. I grew up in quite a musical environment as a large part of my family are organ builders. When I was in school, I always wanted to be a musician, so I played in a band and wrote songs.
Why did you choose to re-imagine the printer?
I started to be interested in the relationship between humans and machines in general and why and how people become so emotional with technology. People scream at their computers or caress their phones.
I realised, that a lot of things are over complicated because they’re designed poorly. For example doors, which have to be pulled, but you do it wrong every time, or the printer you can’t use, because you don’t understand how it works. Most people get the idea that they’re stupid, and it’s their own fault that they can’t use the product. But these are all problems that can be solved by design.
Don Norman, a cognitive scientist who has written a lot about design calls this the paradox of technology. He wrote in 1988: ‘The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions in each device also complicates life by making the device harder to learn, harder to use’. This is the paradox of technology.
I picked the printer because it’s a very common product that everyone knows, but it’s absolutely-in-no-way attractive. They’re complicated and have just too many features and bad interfaces. I recently bought a printer and my room has looked like an office since. That’s when I got the idea to re-imagine the printer.
How does this printer re-engage people?
I think most people can imagine having this printer at home. I also think it’s because of two reasons: Firstly, being that people realise how much they dislike their current printers as soon as they see Paper. Paper seems to be uncomplicated, because the form explains itself and you think you understand how it works before you even touch it. Second, a lot of people have a strong desire for haptic, tangible things. Some people might think that printers are close to extinction and soon be gone. But when I close my eyes and imagine my perfect work space, I see computers, but I also see a lot of paper and pens. To draw something, to write something down – sometimes it’s the best method. So, instead of going paperless, I want to transfer visual content from the digital world to the analog, and the other way around, in a quick, easy and joyful way. That’s what Paper is about and that’s why people dig it so much, I suppose.
You applied the Pareto Principle when designing Paper. What is the Pareto Principle exactly…
The Pareto Principle, also called the 80-20 rule, states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. For example: in Microsoft Word, 80% of the time, you only use 20% of the functionalities. 80% of the time, we wear 20% of our clothes. It’s a rule of thumb that helps to prioritise stuff. Especially with a product like a printer, that often has so many features and functionalities, it helps to figure out what are the most important features that people will use 80% of the time.
It’s important to realise, that most products have a few, simple key features, that solve the problem they’re supposed to. Besides that, there are often hundreds of other features and preferences, that are rarely used. When designing, it’s key to focus on the important features and make them easy to understand.
Tell us about the Musikbox 1188 speaker too.
The Musikbox 1188 is a bluetooth loudspeaker. Besides listening to your own music, you can also listen to the music that your friends listen to, in real time. You can assign four people and they become your very personal radio stations. This idea comes from the fact, that more and more people are using streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music to listen to their music.
The freedom to listen to almost every piece of music there is, makes it so hard to decide. I found myself listening to just a couple of albums on Spotify for weeks, because I was so overwhelmed by the quantity.
But listening to music and discovering new stuff should be fun right? So I tried to figure out a way, where people think less, have less choice and just dive into something new. And I think the best way to do this, is to listen to the stuff that your friends are into, people you know well. So whenever one of these four friends is listening to music, a little light point turns on, so you know it’s active. You can put the knob in, and hear what they hear. You can only assign four friends to these “channels” with the intention to make users choose important people.
This all stems from your thesis, right?
The goal of my thesis was to bring the digital and the analog world closer together. In these times, digital products and services become more and more important and make our lives easier in every way. Especially the smartphone and mobile internet changed the way we live. We can now sell a bike to someone and get directions to foreign places while sitting in a cafe or riding a train. Static information that was bound in books and maps is now fluid and accessible from everywhere at everytime. But these developments also must be viewed critically.
Smartphones have their downsides too. We all know people who sink into their smartphone screens, absorbed by virtual worlds and from time to time, we’ve been that person. All the apps and services are good and useful on their own, but to handle everything with only our phones is distracting us from the outside world and our environment. Interactions with screens demand an enormous amount of concentration and leave the human motor functions and haptics unused. To not make us too dependant and addicted to our smartphone screens, there should be more physical things that reflect a modern lifestyle and make my life easier and more enjoyable, but that’s not the case. Most products become the exact opposite of what people are looking for as they get more and more complicated. To make a modern product, it’s not enough to add a display.
So I asked myself: Is it possible to transfer the quality of a digital user experience to an everyday object? Can we use physical feel to improve digital experiences? Are we able to make the information and the opportunities of the internet more tangible and experience them in physical things?
The result were three products: Paper, the printer; the Musikbox 1188, and an interactive, sound-making poster that uses a specialised conductive paint to trigger sounds. They’re all using the power of the internet and reflect modern lifestyles, but none of them use a display and therefor, do not distract too much attention. It’s supposed to be “calm technology”, that integrates into your daily life. My thesis was received very well. I worked on it for four months, by myself, so the professors didn’t see it until the final presentation, which was very exciting and a super nerve-wracking. Thankfully it all went really well.
On the front cover of your thesis, in blue-stamped text it reads, ‘Pleasant Things Work Better.’ What is a pleasant thing?
“Pleasant things work better” is a quote by Don Norman, one of my biggest influences on my work. And in the end, this sentence kind of summed up all the words I wrote in the thesis. A pleasant thing is something that is fun to use, enjoyable, clever, intuitive. The interesting thing here is, that people have less patience with products they dislike, and are willing to invest more time and effort to operate a product they love. So, pleasant things do work better, because people have fun using it, which makes everything easier.
Do you think there’s a complex product that cannot be simplified?
Well, another project of mine which was great fun was called Milk, a portable video projector. I don’t know what I will do next, but I’m sure there will always be things to improve. That’s just how it is. There are a lot of things that are complex and don’t need to be simplified, mostly products and machines that are used in a professional context. For example an airplane cockpit is pretty complicated, but the pilot needs all that stuff and he knows what he has to do.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m freelancing and looking for a job or exciting projects. I would love to make Paper a reality, but it’s definitely hard to realise a hardware product. I’m still looking for the right people with the right knowledge to collaborate and make it happen. EJ