Piano Tops

“If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top.”

That’s Bucky Fuller. And this idea was the starting point Design Tool Studio.

The discussion centered around questions like: What ideas or tools do we take for granted? What “piano tops” are they based on? Can you imagine a tool not based on a something else?

In the end, the consensus was that most tools are necessarily based on a previous version or analogous tool. It’s easy enough to simplify a tool’s basic function to find a parent. Simply, piano tops exist because things have existed before them.

In fact, they need to exist. If designers continuously went around wholesale reinventing tools we’d see a different tool for every designer, there’d never be enough adoption to make it viable, and replacement would edge out refinement. 

Path Dependency

That being said, we’re lazy. And that’s actually the reason that many of these piano tops still exist.

Take the QWERTY keyboard layout. The popular tale is that Christopher Latham Sholes designed this layout (c. 1870), which separated many of the most common letter pairings, to slow typists down in order to prevent jams on early mechanical typewriters. (Some point to the proximity of ‘e’ and ‘r’ to debunk this theory. Others think it was in response to typists input that the layout evolved as it did.) In any case, this “decidedly counterintuitive” layout became the standard and has remain so for quite a while.

What’s fascinating and unbelievable is there’s been very little competition or inclination to change the layout since. Even Sholes, QWERTY’s daddy, spent the rest of his life refining the typewriter and its layouts. He even patented layouts that he deemed to be more efficient. You’d think that as the keyboard became ubiquitous (and shrunk to the size of a phone screen) someone would have developed a better system. And you’d be right. Of course there are other keyboard layouts. But they’re been almost no adoption of them.

Adoption means relearning how to type. It means changing manufacturing processes. It means switching a massive, intrenched system. It means a lot of work for a lot of people. And at the end of the day most people would rather lay out sunning ourselves on a piano top than get off and build something better.