Valuable Lessons from Pointless Machines

Most people think of Rube Goldberg machines—devices which intentionally perform simple tasks in indirect, unnecessarily complicated ways—as examples of ingenious engineering. But the work of “kinetic artist” Joseph Herscher reveals that these contraptions are as much about design as anything.

Herscher’s pièce de résistance may be “The Cake Server,” shown above: a gorgeous monstrosity that brings together melting butter, a glass of juice that pours its contents into itself, a baby using a smartphone and much more to serve a slice of upside-down cake to a plate in its God-intended manner of delivery. It’s a marvel to behold.

Though the Cake Server relies on precision execution and basic physics and engineering principles, it’s clear from watching the behind-the-scenes video below that there is a real artistry at work, too. In comments that will sound familiar to any designer, Herscher talks about the importance of the viewer’s experience and how certain components of a Rube Goldberg help create a sense of expectation and narrative for the audience. The inclusion of a hammer, for instance, suggests a pounding motion is imminent. His process also includes significant iteration, “creatively tedious” trial and error, in order to determine if something can be reliably reproduced to the desired effect—again, design at work.

It’s also interesting to note that what makes these machines interesting, entertaining and even educational to audiences is not just whether they accomplish their tasks. Granted, no one cares about a Rube Goldberg machine that doesn’t make it to its final stage, that fails to deliver that slice of cake or whatever its ultimate punchline may be. But it’s also true that no one cares about a Rube Goldberg machine that’s dead simple and poses no challenges, whether to the creator or the audience. What matters is the aesthetic quality of the contraption, whether it challenges the possible for no better reason than the fun of that challenge.

Indeed, looking at any successful Rube Goldberg machine offers a lesson in how we might appraise design. In design, we often emphasize the simple metric of whether a something works or not. Some people argue—some designers among them—if it accomplishes its goal then it’s hardly important whether it looked great or not, whether it offered any kind of ineffable aesthetic qualities. I think that’s a false dichotomy though; I think it’s important that a design solution should work and that it’s beautiful. Given the choice between an ugly solution that works and a beautiful solution that also works, most would choose the latter.

It should also be acknowledged that Rube Goldberg machines are in fact pointless, and that if the importance of aesthetic design rests on the entertainment value of pointless machines, that’s not the strongest argument in the world. Fair. But also consider that Rube Goldberg machines are often used to teach physics and engineering. When a student builds a Rube Goldberg he or she is learning the principles of design as well as the principles of physics; you can’t learn one without the other. The two are actually interrelated, funny enough.