Nuance is the Essence of Design

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Let me qualify that title. Design is so much more than just making things pretty. A well designed object is as simple as it needs to be, but no simpler — as probably said by Albert Einstein. Nuance is the detail that makes a design great.

I was recently given a fantastic hand-crafted mortar and pestle. You might ask, what nuance or details could possibly go into the design of a mortar and pestle? Isn’t is just a bowl and something to smash stuff with? For those that do not know, a mortar and pestle is composed of a bowl and a hand held grinding device used to crush or grind spices, or nuts, or whatever.

Here is a picture of mine.
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It was made by hand by a third generation potter named Simon Leach. Mr. Leach has many years of experience as well as all the knowledge of his father and his grandfather.

Here are some other examples of other mortars and pestles:

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You can see that they all have similar design—a bowl, and something to smash the stuff in the bowl. The one crafted by Simon Leach however, has nuance and detail in the design that makes it superior to the others shown above.

First, the interior is unglazed. This provides a rougher surface against which to grind. Second, note how the rim curves back in toward the bowl. This keeps the material in the bowl. The pestle is shaped to fit well in the hand and fit the curvature of the bowl. It is built to be stout so as to withstand the crushing. It was fired to an extremely high temperature so it is hard, durable and non-absorbant. Put all this together and you have a fantastic mortar and pestle.

The other day I was crushing Oreos to make some Oreo cupcakes.

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As I crushed the Oreos in the center of the mortar, the crumbs were pushed outward. As they climbed the sides of the bowl, they reached the rim. Because the rim curves back toward the center, the crumbs fell back in on themselves to be crushed again. When I noticed it happen I smiled and appreciated the thought that went into this simple feature. Would the other devices shown above work without this feature? Sure they would—but you would have to push the crumbs back into the bowl yourself as they tried to escape. A simple detail—a nuance that makes a big the difference. To the untrained eye, you would never notice.

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Lastly, mine looks way cooler than any other I have seen on the Internet. Take a look for yourself. All boring. All the same. (Ok, some of the stone ones are pretty cool, but they lack the details of design that make them work well). As with any design, there are weaknesses too. Ceramic mortars and pestles are not quite as durable as some other materials like stone. For my purposes however, it works well.

Pay attention to the things around you

When you use something that just works, and you love it, try to figure out why. Notice the subtle details—the nuance of the design that make it work as well as it works. As I look and try to understand the things around me I gain greater respect and gratitude for the craftsmen who put real effort into making the world a better place and a greater disrespect for people who try to crank out crap just to make a buck.

Design is hard and good design is rare

The design of an object does not get in the way of its intended use. It contributes to it. A well designed object speaks to your mind and affords you all the information you need to make the object work. A well designed object speaks to your heart and makes you love it. Something that is done well and well polished is something to be appreciated as it is extremely difficult to achieve. Nuance is something that bestows additional pleasure. It is the details that make the design, and some of those details can only be described as nuance. Leave out the nuance, and you leave out the greatness.