Sunday, September 08, 2013

Good Thing #39: 8-Track Tapes

8-track tapes are a much maligned and misunderstood format. True, sound-quality wise, they were pretty awful. They were big and clunky. They couldn't be fast-forwarded or rewound the way that the cassette tapes that replaced them could. Focusing on these issues is missing the point, however. 8-Track Tapes were designed by a consortium that included Ford Motors and Lear Jet. It was the first truly portable audio format. It let people take their music on the road with them and decide what album they would listen to, when they wanted. That was amazing in and of itself. Look at the "issues" of the format from the standpoint of it being a format for music on the road (or in the air). "Features" of media are all things that actually make driving more dangerous. If you're fast-forwarding or reversing music (or changing songs as with CD and MP3 players) you're not paying attention to the road. The size of the 8-track tapes meant less fumbling to find the slot to fit it into. The cartridge itself had physical cues to indicate which way to orient the cartridge without needing to look at it. Sound quality may not have been great, but it wasn't really designed for home use. It was meant for the road. In this sense it was a design masterpiece and something that modern designers should learn from. How many lives are lost due to bad design? People typically chalk it up to driver error when a car crashes due to a distracted driver. However, with every piece of technology in that car, a design choice was made. That choice could have been to make it safer for the driver, easier to work without taking eyes off the road, or less distracting. 8-tracks put driving first. If more designers followed that direction, the roads would be much safer.