Carl Barenbrug

Product design, creative direction

What makes tech fun?

When asking this question, I'm not really thinking too literally. For instance, I'm not asking, "what is a fun piece of tech?" Because the answer to that would be simple: any game, gaming device, or immersive VR experience that's engineered to be fun to use. That's far too simplistic. I'm curious about what gives tech a fun personality without it being a complete waste of time, energy, and resources.

A tech company I've come to quietly admire in recent years is Nothing. Principally an Android phone company building their own hardware devices (with Teenage Engineering) and software experiences to support those devices, their goal is to make tech fun again. It's a subjective, ambiguous, but bold concept to design from. I mean, Apple had an advertising campaign with the slogan think different. This slogan has long outlived that particular campaign period from the late 90s, which I believe was a response to IBM at the time. But Apple fully embraced this approach with their product line and it clearly worked wonders for them. Because it wasn't just an empty statement. It was embedded in everything they did. They thought different. They made different. And here is Nothing, probably making their own response to Apple and other large tech corporations that seem to be doing the same thing year on year; focusing on financial growth, with few signs of innovation.

I'll leave it up to you to determine whether Nothing's product line is injecting fun into the industry or not. In my opinion, they're working hard to achieve it; they listen to and engage well with their community, while producing good and distinctive design at a relatively decent pace (and price). I enjoy Nothing's design language a lot; it's minimal yet they're not afraid to create something experimental that evokes playfulness or provokes discussion. Like with every brand, however, some products hit better than others, but I guess that comes with the territory with VC-funded startups. I just hope the pressures of funding and profit don’t make them fall in line and start doing what everyone else does. Regardless of what they're making, Nothing's slogan got me thinking.


What makes tech fun? (from my design perspective)

  • Making something without fear of failure.
  • Treating design as a learning experiment.
  • Putting feeling before functionality.
  • Giving design a soul and a backstory.
  • Finding new ways of interacting with users.
  • Having freedom to create through accessible tooling.
  • Surprising consumers with something unexpected.
  • Reinventing the past.
  • Building for a future we think we're not ready for.
  • Making something exceptional but accepting it may only be seen as exceptional by the few rather than the many.
  • Bridging the gap between sci-fi and reality.

A handful of fun tech examples:

Phone 2 by Nothing
Phone 2 by Nothing
Braun Wandanlage, Reimagined by Virgil Abloh (inspired by Dieter Rams' original design)
Braun Wandanlage, Reimagined by Virgil Abloh (inspired by Dieter Rams' original design)
Infobar Apple Watch case by KDDI (inspired by Naoto Fukasawa's original design)
Infobar Apple Watch case by KDDI (inspired by Naoto Fukasawa's original design)
OP–1 field by Teenage Engineering
OP–1 field by Teenage Engineering
Ubicot AI assistant by Naoto Fukasawa
Ubicot AI assistant by Naoto Fukasawa
Pocket by Analogue
Pocket by Analogue
Stem player
Stem Player by Kano Computing x Yeezy
Playdate by Teenage Engineering
Playdate by Teenage Engineering
v0 by Vercel
v0 by Vercel

What sucks the fun out of tech? (for everyone)

In a word: growth; infinite growth that's impossible to achieve. Yet major tech companies (including some gaming cos) chase this impossibility relentlessly and unashamedly. If all you're seeking is exponential profit margins, then all you'll do is maintain the status quo, be guided by trends, make more of what sells, do what's expected, and do what customers tell you to do. This kills innovation.

Fun tech isn't always good tech (at least in the sense of design standards), but it's something designers and engineers need to make, and something consumers need to experience.

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