09/03/2009 03:53 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Driven to Design

This past weekend I took a drive up the California coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It is a majestic drive, a true reminder on why America became infatuated with the automobile and the freedom to go anywhere, at anytime.

I find long drives both peaceful and a way to collect my thoughts. As a designer and an inventor, getting away from the hustle of city life helps me understand the function of design and its relationship to people and nature. In the early 90's, while working as an artist for a software company in Seattle, I was given Don Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things. I found the book fascinating. It discussed how we view things, the difference between good design (which in most cases is transparent and not discernible, according to Norman) and bad design which causes pause, and makes us think about the relationship between the items function and its design. A classic example would be door handles. There's a well known Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, depicting the door in front of the "Midvale School for the Gifted." A student is trying to push it open. On the door is a sign that say's "pull."

We've all done it. How many times have you gone to a door that has a handle that implies push, but you pull, and vice-versa? That would be a transparent design which should easily tell you the function of the handle. No handle? Push.

Along my drive this weekend I happened on two attractions that put all this in into perspective. The Madonna Inn, located along the central coast near San Luis Obispo, is a motel attraction originally built in 1958. It gets a lot of media attention for its fantastical design. Think Willy Wonka meets Hannibal Lecter and you'll have a general idea of the place. Much has been written about the Inn, including this quote which sums up the experience:

The poor words with which natural human speech is provided, cannot suffice to describe the Madonna Inn... Let's say that Albert Speer, while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overgenerous dose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli.

- Umberto Eco, Travels In Hyperreality.

Interestingly enough however, the Madonna Inn bustles with business. Tourists were quickly snapping pictures of every public room, even taking turns to take photos of the well-publicized urinal 'cave' in the men's restroom. Good design? Not really. Ornate overkill comes to mind. Sensory overload a not so distant second. Or wait a minute: There are thousands of motels in the US. Most have much better functional design. But, for a seemingly remote place, where the only other attraction is the Hearst Castle fifty miles north, this place is nirvana. Like the Watts Towers, they've built something totally out of the ordinary and people flock to experience it.

An hour later I arrived at the aforementioned Hearst Castle. Regal. Royal. A bit of Europe situated high upon the hillside overlooking the beautiful coast. A much bigger operation (owned by the State of California), this attraction was well-organized, thoroughly curated, and expensive! There is a theater showing a 40-minute movie about the history of the Hearst family and the Castle they built. Then there are trams leading tours around the grounds, although signs continually remind folks not to take flash photography or touch anything. And once inside the Castle, visitors hear the history of its celebrated guests, the lavish parties, the treasury spent on art, marble, materials and craftsmanship brought in from all over from Europe. All at the hand of the great architect Julia Morgan. It is an overwhelming sight. More than four contiguous tours, each lasting over an hour-and-one- half (and costing about $25 each) wouldn't cover all the rooms of the mansion.

But is it a great design? Not really. Most of the design is directly borrowed, or duplicative, and can be attributed to styles found in Europe. The Castle is huge and spectacular, but that's also its greatest flaw. It's beautiful, but so is a pile of gold bricks with blue ribbons. All the visitors are revisiting the past, enamored of history, the cost overruns, the Italian marble, the gold leaf, and the plentiful use of teak wood. It is easy to enjoy the Castle on its own merits, on autopilot, if you will, reaffirming what you've already seen in books. Take your pictures and fill your albums.

But if you want to experience design, go off the beaten path, and be accepting of design that permits ease of use while you ponder the relationship we all share with it.

Transparent functionality that goes unnoticed, and intentionally so such as the push-pull example, can be a great thing but the design that makes you think may be the one most worthy of all.