Kindle Oasis Is a Reality Check for Design Snobs

Kindle Oasis

Amazon’s new Kindle Oasis is its most elegant and sophisticated yet, but even this latest iteration leaves so much to be desired if you’re a lover of design. Every time I look at the Kindle—the whole product family, not just the shockingly chintzy hardware, but also its unabashedly inelegant software, complete with endless typographic offenses—I think of that Steve Jobs quote about how design isn’t just the way it looks, but it’s the way it works, too. For me, the Kindle seems to be all works and no looks—the Oasis is a step forward only if you regard the visual language of day planners from the 1990s as an artistic high water mark for society.

The Kindle’s surprisingly resilient upward trajectory—the company insists that the Kindle line is still a source of revenue growth, even in the face of smartphone and tablet ubiquity—is a reminder that “good design” is hardly universal. When it comes to digital products, people value things that work well more than they value things that look good. Apparently working really well is good enough for this audience—Kindle users love their Kindles. It doesn’t much matter, I guess, that my stomach goes queasy and my eyes start to bleed every time I try to read anything in a Kindle.

Still, I believe that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Would it be so hard to make these devices and this software not ugly? Given Amazon’s resources and willingness to invest heavily in all kinds of crazy technological baubles, it seems well within the company’s reach to ship a Kindle that looks like it costs more than the cover price of a hardback bestseller to manufacture; it probably wouldn’t take much more effort to make sure the typography engine features a halfway decent hyphenation and justification algorithm, too.

It all seems so clearly within reach that the fact that these products look the way they do suggests not ineptness but rather a highly honed strategy. It’s almost as if the company has determined, probably through some advanced analytics and extensive multivariate testing, that the Kindle brand’s very particular imbalance of utility and looks is somehow perfectly matched to the market. Maybe making the Kindle line look even one percent better would cause sales to dip massively. I guess there’s no arguing with success.