Just after the Museum of Modern Art completed its renovation in 2004, I met the architect who ran the project. He secured the largest budget ever for a museum renovation by telling the MoMA board, “Give me money and I will build you walls. Give me lots of money and I will build you beautiful walls. But give me an unlimited amount of money and time, and I will make the walls disappear.” The board chose the final option.
The idea is profound. As we refine a product it supposedly gets better and better. “Better” in this case is not a single variable, but rather a collection of several things, one of which is the amount of attention it demands. Beyond beauty lies invisibility.
What does it take to make the walls disappear?
I spend some part of nearly every day making something: sometimes an object in glass, sometimes software, sometimes just a meal. But ever since I met that architect, I think about how much I want – or don’t want – my work to be noticed. It’s great when a work speaks for itself, but sometimes it should just be silent.
One of the glass pieces I make illustrates this in both its form and forming. The piece is a simple, curved bowl. If I make the form of the curve correctly, your eye moves past it. Other elements then take the stage: color, shadow, reflections, optics; but the curve disappears. Just like when you use a magnifying glass, your eyes see the object and not the lens.
To make that disappearing curve in hot glass has taken me years of practice and literally hundreds of attempts. There is one critical moment when I have to do everything perfectly for about five seconds or the piece doesn’t work. Unfortunately, those few seconds occur after about twenty minutes of preparation and pre-work, so they are difficult to rehearse. If I am stressed, I can’t make the shape at all.
The interesting thing about forming that curve is that I can only make it well when a particular person at my studio, Jon, is assisting me – despite the fact that he is not involved in any part of the critical maneuver. Even though I move through that critical moment doing everything myself, the person I am working with determines my success or failure. This was baffling when I first noticed it. How could someone ten feet away influence my hands?
It comes back to invisibility.
When I work with Jon, I don’t think about anything that he is doing. Jon and I have worked together so long that I completely trust him. In other words, he becomes invisible. When I work with Bob, who is actually a better glassblower, I’m just a bit less able to concentrate on my work. Bob will occasionally forget something, so that thought is always on my mind. I see the result in my hands.
If I’m making something simple, there is no difference in assistance between Bob and Jon. But when it counts and I need every bit of skill that I have, then I need an invisible assistant. No matter what I do to concentrate or relax, my hands just don’t move as well when I work with Bob.
I only realized this difference between Jon and Bob because I was working at the absolute limit of my ability. But then the obvious question became, “how many other times in my life was I paying a price, not with my money, but with my attention?”
Every product or service that is sold has two price tags. The first is money, and unless you are purchasing a mobile phone plan, the price is clear and understandable. But the other price is the amount of attention the object requires; measuring that is difficult. A free object can be very costly. If you don’t believe me, I’ll give you a puppy.
If you are creating a product or service, how much do you want the customer to notice it? So many products demand our precious attention. The word processor I’m writing this essay on currently has 52 visible menu options on my laptop screen. Actually, now that I’m looking for them, I realize I missed another 10 at the bottom of the window so it’s really 62. Each of those objects makes me just a tiny bit annoyed. I use this word processor because there isn’t a more invisible one available that can easily speak to other systems; but I use it grudgingly.
Invisibly, the company.
I named my new company Invisibly out of respect for the ideal of invisibility. At Invisibly’s core is a staggeringly complex micropayment system that allows individuals to receive credit for the advertisements they see and pay with this for the media they consume. I once spent an hour explaining how it works to twenty-eight PhD economists at the Federal Reserve and lost half the room. The good news is that you don’t need to know how the system works to use it. In fact, over 100,000,000 Americans have used the system to date without noticing. We would love for every person to engage with Invisibly’s system and take control of the true worth of their attention, but it works even if they never do anything. Invisibly.
Invisibility is not always the goal;
sometimes we want our work to be noticed.
The original Square reader I designed, which ironically now is exhibited at MoMA, was engineered to be noticed. If you have ever swiped your card through that little white square, you probably didn’t succeed the first time. The reader is so small that the card tends to wobble as it moves past the read head. It’s not hard for the user to correct this problem, but it takes a bit of practice. This was not an accident.
At the time, Square was a new company with a new concept. We wanted your attention. Giving you a beautiful but slightly difficult to use piece of hardware got us that attention. People would practice their swipes and show off to their friends. Now their friends noticed us as well. We could easily have built a wider reader to eliminate that wobble, but a bit of temporary frustration was the price of attention. The reason this worked was that after a few swipes, people got the hang of it and liked it even better. It then receded into the background as one more thing they learned how to do, like tying shoes. Or like working with an invisible assistant they didn’t have to think about.
Notice when you choose to be noticed.
 E. J. O’Brien and J. L. Myers (1985). When comprehension difficulty improves memory for text. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 11(1): 12–21.