MAYA principle: the future is important, but so is the present

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By Natalie Golffed

October 22, 2021

Humans crawl before they walk, and walk before they run. That’s how we are biologically designed, and there’s a logic behind that: we need to develop certain skills – and master them even – before we can be fully prepared to take on the next challenge. 

This simple statement has an impact on the way we design, or rather, on the acceptance our designs get. Design is expected to be future-facing, but not so much so that we feel no connection to it when we are right here, right now. Finding that perfect balance, that sweet spot between the user’s present frame of mind and the innovation that is expected from the product is a key factor in the product’s insertion into the market. This is what Raymond Loewy, designer extraordinaire, meant when he defined a design principle known as MAYA: Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable. 

And even though it sounds simple enough, it’s not always correctly applied. Examples of this are all around us, or at least they were at some point before they were forgotten and discarded. It has happened in big companies too: Apple, Google and other major players have delivered progressive innovation that hit it out of the park, but in some other cases have tried to deliver disruptive innovation, with varying levels of success. For this purpose, they relegate the MAYA principle. 

Let’s examine a certainly less-known example: the electric car. When we think of these transportation methods, clean energy, advanced features and in general a very modern product comes to mind. But if we take a closer look at history, we’ll find that the first electric vehicles were developed between 1890 and 1900, and actually accounted for one third of all vehicles on US roads by 1910. I bet you didn’t see that coming! So, what happened? Why were they relegated to the dark for so long? For a while, electric cars were popular because they were quieter, easier to drive and just cleaner than gas-fueled cars. Also, because roads outside of cities were in such a bad shape, almost no vehicles dared to go further, so electric cars became a good option for short drives and errands around the city: they quickly became popular, especially for women. This was an important step, independence-wise. As electricity began expanding to millions of homes, charging the cars became easier.

Electric cars became a good option for short drives and errands around the city: they quickly became popular, especially for women.

Getty: Corbis/Hall of Electrical History Foundation

But as science moved along, things changed. By the time Henry Ford mass-produced and sold the Model T, it cost about a third of what an electric car would cost at the time. This, coupled with the finding of petrol sources in Texas, lowered the costs of gas. Other technological advances took place at the same time that made gas-fueled cars easier to use. Gas pumps became available all over the country, whereas electricity was still not as present in rural areas. Roads became better suited for cars, and this meant that transportation between rural and urban areas became a necessity. All of these factors meant that in the consumer’s mind, the gas-fueled car was THE way to go, and by 1935 electric cars pretty much disappeared from everyone’s minds.

Context was what drove the electric cars out of business, and they wouldn’t return until over a century later. Even today the context is not entirely favorable to electric cars, but we’re getting closer and adding the necessary infrastructure.

Something similar happened with General Magic. This US-based software company operated between 1990 and 2002, and developed precursors to USB, software modems, small touchscreens, touchscreen controller ICs, ASICs, multimedia email, networked games, streaming TV, and early e-commerce notions. You’ll find several household names that ended up being a part of important projects, such as the iPhone, the iPod and others.

However, because it was so ahead of its time, most of those inventions didn’t take off then… but they certainly are everywhere now! Check out this amazing documentary that will surely make it all clearer:

To try and be more successful, or at least more accepted than the two cases we have just discussed, here are some ideas to apply the MAYA principle in your designs and improve its acceptance:

  • Include familiar elements that your target audience knows. For example, visual patterns that have been in previous versions of your product, or elements that project a certain quality of familiarity.
  • Some instances might need you to move surely, albeit slowly. You can advance your design over time, and if you include the familiar elements we just discussed, there will be an air of connection around it. Think of our Scale and Growth practice, where we scale up your product with very small changes. But other instances will drive you to “break things and move fast”. Think of our Innovation Labs, for example, as a prime space for this: that’s the place to fail fast and try again even faster, using iteration as a tool towards success.
  • Design for simplicity and separate clearly between necessary and optional elements. This will help you see the advantages and disadvantages of including them in your design, and distinguish between innovative and out-of-place features. Even though minimalism is extremely complex to achieve (hats off to you, Apple!), its beauty is in realizing that everything that is included in the design is there for a reason. If you need to include elaborate manuals or help features, consider that your product might be too advanced for the current market, or too full of add-on features that make it less approachable and instinctive. 

Come see how we apply this major design principle when we craft the future, one product at a time.