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Star Wars and Glassboards: Lessons in blending form and function


We design Clarus Glassboards with one overriding goal in mind: To produce the most powerful, most useful visual display systems available; in other words, Clarus produces beautiful works of art.

Despite appearances, we see no contradiction in our design philosophy. Usefulness and beauty may seem like two distinct goals. However, at Clarus, we see things differently. What do we mean? In the interest of explanation, let’s look at some common assumptions about usefulness and beauty.
Now, it’s fair to say we live in a world that does not generally associate beautiful art with usefulness. In fact, beauty and utility are often viewed as contrary objectives: To pursue beauty is to disregard real needs and concerns. Beauty is unnecessary, excessive, nothing more than superfluous ornament.

For example, consider high heels: They may be fashionable, but as shoes go, most people would agree that high heels are pretty far from useful. Many may, in fact, go further: High heels are not only useless; high heels actually make life more difficult. More than unhelpful, high heels actually hamper. To be “a fool for fashion” is, after all, to be reduced—made foolish—by the need to maintain appearances. High heels teach us that the pursuit of beauty leads to impracticality.

At the other extreme, we’ve noticed a tendency to link utility with a disregard for beauty. To embrace practicality is to assert a no- nonsense indifference for the niceties of appearance.

An example will help here. Seen Star Wars? Of course you have. As we said a couple sentences above, we’ve noticed that interest in practicality often seems to require a disinterest in beauty. Consider Han Solo. More specifically, consider the scene in which Luke Skywalker famously insults Han’s beat-up spaceship, the Millennium Falcon:

Luke Skywalker: “What a piece of junk!”

Han Solo: “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid… She made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”

One need not know about the “Kessel Run” or the meaning of a “parsec” to get the basic idea: The Millennium Falcon must be pretty fast; at the very least, we can deduce that the ship works, despite its looks.

The interesting point here is that Solo does not fully reject Luke’s opinion of the ship as a “piece of junk.” Instead, he clarifies Luke’s language. Solo would in fact seem to agree with Skywalker’s sense of style. He acknowledges the fact that his ship, “may not look like much.” In other words, Skywalker and Solo share some common sense of beauty; at least, they both agree on what looks like junk.

Their disagreement does not lie in their opinion of what is and is not beautiful. The difference emerges in the how Luke and Han each view beauty as indicator of quality. Skywalker’s specific use of the term “junk” takes on particular significance here. He does not simply describe the Millennium Falcon as ugly. Rather, Skywalker’s use of the term “junk” conflates ugliness and useless as mutually inclusive concepts, as if the ugliness of junk were an extension of its uselessness and vice versa. As an evaluative term, “Junk” is reductive: It makes no distinction between looks and functionality.

Luke’s language suggests that he has not yet learned to distinguish between outer appearance and actual quality.

Solo’s reaction does not challenge Luke’s aesthetic judgment; instead, Solo clarifies the distinction between looks and quality: “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.” What “counts” for Solo lies in functionality, not in appearance.

The lesson itself may be cliché: Basically, Luke still judges a book by its cover. But the exchange condenses key elements of both characters: Unlike the skeptical Han, Luke takes the world at face value. Luke has not yet experienced, in any formative way, the gap between appearance and reality—a sign of immaturity significantly highlighted by Solo’s reference to Luke as a “kid.”

The exchange situates Han as a kind of older brother, the jaded foil to Luke’s naïve faith in appearances. The lesson meaningfully reemerges again in Empire Strikes Back, when Luke’s teacher, Yoda, chastises the young Jedi for confusing his teacher’s diminutive appearance as an indicator of ability:

“Size matters not. Judge me by my size do you? And well you should not.”

Just as Luke misjudges the Millennium Falcon’s “junky” appearance as a sign of internal defect, he misjudges Yoda’s appearance as a sign of inability.

The lessons of Star Wars would seem to confirm a common cultural belief in the importance of maintaining a distinction between appearances and reality. In other words, the idea that things are not always what they appear. Common wisdom suggests that maturity requires developing a skeptical incredulity toward surface appearances as indicators of actual qualities— again, the cliché life lesson that one cannot tell a book by its cover. Now, we don’t presume to trace out the “origins” of this skepticism; we certainly do not question that skepticism has value. After all, one does not need to be Yoda to understand how skepticism emerges as a particularly useful trait. If nothing else, nothing else, skepticism becomes particularly useful in a useful in a commercial culture that regularly privileges image over privileges image over quality. Still, if a deceptive “image culture” “image culture” requires healthy skepticism toward appearances, appearances, this same image culture also encourages a encourages a misleadingly paranoid prejudice against against appearances as inherently deceptive, a perversely ironic perversely ironic “Murphy’s Law” mentality that seeks security in seeks security in the cynical assumption that anything that looks anything that looks good must be bad, and anything truly good anything truly good rejects the aspiration to beauty.

The design philosophy at Clarus offers another way to see the world. Against cynicism, we believe that beauty and quality are not only compatible, but mutually essential: The beauty of our products emerges in proportion to their usefulness. We don’t simply set out to make beautiful glass boards; our glass boards are beautiful because they enhance the lives of those who use them. And the better we make them, the more beautiful they become.