January 28, 2013

Rubik's Cube

Erno Rubik, 1974

Authors: William Lidwell, Gerry Manacsa

Topic: Product Design

Few puzzles have managed to combine the formidable difficulty (just over forty-three quintillion possible combinations) with the prima facie simplicity (one solution no more than twenty-five rotations away from any given configuration) of Rubik's Cube, which may explain why it has become one of the best-selling toys of all time. More than twenty-five years after its introduction to the West, the original Cube and numerous variations continue to sell well, and Rubik's Cube solving competitions, called speedcubing competitions, are increasing in popularity. Of this writing, the world record to solve the Cube is 7.08 seconds, set by Erik Akkersdijk at the Czech Open 2008. How does one go about creating such a successful product? Erno Rubik comments: "I did not plan to make the Cube. I did not plan the success. I wanted nothing else than to make the object as perfect as possible. Now, after the Cube, I still don't have any plans to make anything like it. I'm still the same person, thinking the same way, so it's possible I will invent something. But to want to repeat the Cube — that is not the way to live." The form is a simple cube comprised of twenty-six smaller cubes or cubelets, configured as a 3x3 grid on each of the six faces. Cubelets are affixed to a central mechanism, an engineering puzzle in its own right, which allows each grid row and column to be rotated independently. The object is solid, easily held, and its manipulation easily discovered — for example, there are documented cases of very young children, as young as three, easily using and solving the puzzle. Unlike many puzzles, Rubik's Cube arrives in the solved configuration. The arranged state promotes a calm and peaceful affect, appealing to innate desires for order and security. With just a few twists and turns, however, order is long lost — like entering the Labyrinth of Crete without the ball of yarn to trace your way out. Backtracking is soon deemed futile, and the focus turns to just getting a single side in the correct configuration. But each twist that attains order on one face compromises it on another. Play turns serious, frustrating, and often addictive. Rubik has said, "We turn the Cube, and it twists us.'' Why is the need to restore order in the Cube so compelling? Several psychological principles are identifiable: people naturally prefer symmetry over asymmetry, order over disorder, and complete over incomplete cognitive tasks. When closure is not attained, the brain continues to work on the problem, a phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik effect. History is also instructive. Rubik's Cube is reminiscent of the classic 15 Puzzle devised in the late 1870s, itself the cause of a puzzle mania second only to Rubik's Cube. A 15 Puzzle consists of fifteen consecutively numbered tiles that can be pushed around inside a square frame. It shares many of the qualities of the Cube: it arrives in an arranged state, it's easy to hold and manipulate, order is easily lost and difficult to restore, and it presents a façade of simplicity, concealing the true complexity of the task and leading users to think the puzzle is something that they can solve. The parallels are difficult to ignore, and no doubt suggest some of the keys to their respective successes.

Brock Danner

Architecture The cube dissected into the nine-square grid, a mathematical architect's dream. The Rubik's Cube is an incredible example of the mathematical complexity underlying simple geometric forms. This product is both an ideal of classical formalism and of gothic subdivision.

Keith Lang

Interaction Design

I picked up one of these a few weeks ago, sitting on a friend's table, having not touched a Cube for years. It's such a beautiful design. The end goal is almost instantly clear, and you can twist it any way you like without hard limits. It's like six degrees of affordication.

Rob Tannen

Human Factors

In motivational psychology, a pacer is a stimulus that maintains interest by providing a challenge just beyond a person's current level of skill. Rubik's Cube was a transgenerational, transcultural pacer. Part of its success was timing. Released in North America around the same time as Pac-Man (think of each successive level of a video game as a pacer), it was everything video games were not: tangible, portable, and for the vast majority, ultimately unsolvable.

Dori Tunstall

Design Anthropology

The ultimate puzzle game toy. Six faces (red, green, white, yellow, blue, and orange) and nine partitions lead to a myriad of combinations. Although Rubik's Cube International competitions continue today, the toy is the visual icon of the 1980s for me.