This Freespirit treadmill is a Sears product, and inhabits a remote corner of Elbowroom’s headquarters. When workers need a refreshing running break, the treadmill awaits with open arms. The problem is, the treadmill interface is such a depressing product of graphic design that for any designer running on it, it’s less like exercise and more like torture. There is nowhere to look except directly at this interface, and nothing to think about except how awful the design is. If this review seems a little personal, it’s because it is.
First of all, let’s talk about geometry. In graphic design, a thoughtful designer will restrict him or herself to shapes that fit the project’s theme. It builds continuity (the product feels unified), it demonstrates intentionality (it looks like it was designed with purpose), and the result is easy to look at. The iPhone, for example, uses almost exclusively rounded rectangles.
Let’s take a quick inventory on the number of shapes employed by this treadmill interface. From the bottom to the top, we have a circle, two ovals, a row of rounded squares, then some slanted rounded squares, a whole grid of small squares, one big rounded rectangle (the main display), two columns of straight rectangles, all contained within the physical panel itself, which is…some kind of curvy rectangle.
This isn’t to say that the use of multiple shapes should be avoided: many times, differing shapes are used as visual cues about the item’s function. In this case, however, the abuse of shapes result in a disjointed, unpleasant jumble of purposelessness.
Secondly, we should discuss fonts and style. You can look at products like Nike+ , Gatorade’s Fluid Loss Calculator or Reebok Hockey and see the same trends: sport typography in 2007 is scientific, sophisticated and intense. The fonts used on the Freespirit treadmill, contrarily, are dated, primitive and boring. The font used, does not suggest advanced technology or intense exercise, it suggests sitting in a cubicle filling out TPS reports. The treadmill achieves a very run-of-the-mill look, rather than striving for a cutting-edge image that would resonate with sports culture.
Thirdly, let’s talk about functionality. This is stepping on the toes of industrial designers, but it needs to be said. If you’re going to design things to look like buttons, let them act as buttons. Those red and blue panels to the left and right of the central display? They let you see what pre-programmed runs are available. The thing is, you can’t actually press them to select the program. You have to use the up and down arrows under the “program / program” area.
If you’ll notice, the up arrow is on the left, and the down arrow is on the right. This is not only counter-intuitive (look at your volume controls, if you have buttons: down is on the left, up is on the right), it introduces a system that gets broken on the same interface. With the “slow / fast” options on the far right, the placement of the up/down arrows are reversed. If faucet manufacturers displayed this kind of carelessness, we’d all end up with scalded hands.
Fourthly (and lastly), let’s address potential. Maybe we’re asking too much from our humble exercise machine, but if you take a look at the control panels, information interfaces and dashboards around you, in things like cars, computers or telephones, you’ll likely be met with some remarkably beautiful industrial design. Dashboards in general give designers the opportunity to create seamless, symmetrical, smart design; design that is so intuitive to use that its users don’t even notice the design work. Take a look at this image from the inside of a VW Golf: it features clean, simple, cohesive circles, in an easy-to-understand layout.
It’s good to expend some energy on a treadmill, but you shouldn’t have to sweat to figure out the control panel. This Freespirit exercise machine is an example of awkward, non-intuitive interface design. And don’t get us started on the logo.