Artificial Horizon

Articles and links about the design process
by Thibaut Sailly


February 10, 2009

Amazon just launched its new Kindle and here is a comment based on the presentation given today on, in perspective to the one I did when the first one was unveiled a little more than a year ago.
In short : Amazon acknowledges it had a light industrial design vision and sadly does not do better this time. Ergonomics get better, but seem to be improvable. Read Tschichold if you want to design a book, be it a digital one.

version française.

What was wrong and is gone

Good bye slanted keyboard keys, we won't miss you. It was one of the fancy features held by the Kindle, and its disappearance proves it was so. The same goes for the angled cuts of the overall shape, the grey silicon back and its letters recessed pattern : looks like they didn't feel the need to keep them after all. This is what happens to features not belonging to an object's DNA, as you can see in the incarnations of car models : door handles, headlights, mirrors, window shapes...
The problem the Kindle had was : these details were actually not details but features defining the Kindle's identity, in the industrial design sense of it *. They didn't mean anything, they were like words without a sentence to bring sense to them as a whole.

The strip on the side of the screen has gone too, reducing the visual noise of the Kindle's reading surface. The interface designers must have been given more time to think of a way to navigate the kindle without the need of this disturbing strip. Given the comments in the users feedback video, they seem to have done a great job.

The Previous / Next buttons apparently didn't need to be so big, as they shrunk quite a lot. Certainly to prevent users to turn pages inadvertently, as it has been reported to happen with version 1. This leaves some more and needed room for the fingers to grab the device.


Amazon may have recognize the emptiness of some of their form factors by not replicate them in version 2, the absence of a clear industrial design identity is revealed by the (voluntary ?) resemblance with Apple's ID codes. Or should I say Braun's industrial design codes... White plastic, rounded corners, satin metal back with plastic top. Sort of a mix between the iPod classic and the first generation iPhone. Blackberry may copy Apple's codes for their new phones, it doesn't make it a valuable reason to do so. Grow some balls Amazon, you have the shoulders to port an identity of your own.
Seen you somewhere
Speaking of white plastic, as I suggested last time, it could help reduce the frame effect of the screen's enclosure to match the two colors exactly. Sure, this grey is less Apple, less hygienic, but if it enhances the reading experience, they should own this color, make it part of the DNA, find another color this grey plays well with for the other parts and create a great harmony.
Not that it would fool anyone, but it may be more comfortable
The manipulation of the Kindle 2 seems to be as awkward as for version 2, thanks to the keyboard and navigation. Here are still from the video showing how the (directed) actors were handling it : far from the comfort of avidly grabbing a paperback, they look like they hold a precious golden frame containing a medieval manuscript, or a fragile mirror.
Holding the Precious
By the posture of its users, the device communicates its nature ; you don't hold a 3 years old mobile phone the same way you hold an iPhone. Here, the posture of the actors tells us : precious, fragile, expensive, exclusive, even if it's not. I think this is due to the placement of the keyboard and the next/previous buttons ; it prevents the user to actually grasp the object without interfering with the content. It makes the Kindle closer to a fancy new electronic device and farther from an all purpose, democratic and sturdy reading device, even if it is. This keyboard needs to go some other place (or is it rendered idle when you read ?). The slide-out keyboard solution still seems interesting ; I would be ready to give on the thickness increase if I could handle this device like a paperback, deep in my couch.
Fingers are getting a little more room
All that being said, the idea of the Kindle is fantastic. Users seem really happy of what they get from their new reading experience, and being able to download a book from amazon's servers in 60 seconds is just incredible. What pleases me the most is that Amazon is today the company which is successfully implementing and distributing the e-ink technology on the wide scale it needs to improve and be more affordable to more people, and it should be thanked for it (ship it to Europe and I'll show my support with hard money). I can't wait for the first laptop using this kind of screen : having to work away from sunlight because of reading issues is so frustrating.
This is why these comments (and the previous ones) may sound a little harsh : such a beautiful idea deserves only the best for its incarnation, and as a designer, it's really guts talk in such cases.

To the designers in charge of the Kindle, if they ever come across this read : I know it's easy to criticize a project without knowing the brief and the constraints you faced, and I'm perfectly conscious how shameless it is to have done so. It's more the goals that I criticize here than the execution. For a project so beautiful and from a company like Amazon, the bar should be higher, the advantages and drawbacks better balanced. Face it : you shouldn't be shipping a two years old Apple product.
Moving forward, as book designers, you really have to read this one from Jan Tshichold if you haven't already done so. It will explain in greater details and with much more patience the reason of some points I made here today.

* To continue with the cars example, this would be the proportions of the car, its size, its intended usage. Have a close look at the VW Golf over the years, it really shows what consistency it has, and how strong its DNA is.
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