Silicon Valley Is Rethinking Screen Culture–And So Is Nest

Nest’s new Thermostat E was designed to fade into your living room wall.

The world has changed a lot since 2010, when the smart home company Nest hit the scene. The same year, Apple unveiled the iPad. The internet of things was the hot new buzzword. Nest launched its first smart thermostat the next year, featuring a brilliantly luminous screen that set the temperature in bold type. It was a conspicuous set piece for your wall.


Fast-forward to 2017. Many consumers are questioning whether bringing more screens into the home is a good thing. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple are releasing products that let you access information without a screen at all. Even Nest founder Tony Fadell, who worked on the first iPhone, has questioned the culture he helped to create. “How can we get rid of the screens between us?” asked Fadell, who left the company in 2016, at a talk earlier this year. “How can we make it more of an informational assistant that will help us, instead of being in front of us?”

Design at Nest is evolving, too. This week, the company launched a $169 device called the Thermostat E. It “​feels​ ​like​ ​ceramic.” Its screen display has been subdued by a piece of soft white plastic. And its interface, in the words of Sung Bai, Nest’s head of industrial design, feels like watercolor.

“The way I see it is you see tech everywhere, these big black TVs, mobile phones, all these high-tech products in your house, that are all screaming for attention at the same time, Bai tells Co.Design. “It’s overwhelming. But we design for the house. We want to make products that integrate into the house and into your daily life without being obtrusive.”

The company says that its design team interviewed people who were Nest customers and those who weren’t, and consistently heard that people don’t like that extra screen on their wall, drawing attention to itself. The company’s original thermostat, which stood out like a piece of connected art, simply wasn’t what customers wanted anymore. Instead, people just wanted a device to work in the background, keeping them comfortable at home and saving energy when they’re not. The design needed to much more subtle.

The Thermostat E has a display, but it’s been carefully “frosted,” which means its screen is disguised by a semi-opaque piece of film. It still lights up with the temperature when you walk up to it, but the design lets the Thermostat E blend into the wall, akin to the dumb thermostats of old. Functionally, the new generation is very similar to the company’s seminal Learning Thermostat–but its new industrial design reflects a shift in how we think about technology at home.

“You should treat electronics like furniture,” Sung says of designing tech products for the home. That means that when you’re using it, it is lively and interactive, but when you’re not, it fades into the background of your space, complementing it but not drawing attention to itself.


[Photo: courtesy Nest]
It’s a vision of the smart home that is, somewhat paradoxically, designed to facilitate digital detox. “I believe over time, more and more homes are going to have great technology that blends into the background, that hides itself from us, so we can take advantage of the technology but don’t have it intrude in our lives,” says Nest’s cofounder and chief product officer Matt Rogers in a video introducing the product.

Yet in June, Fadell couldn’t see a magical smart home that works effortlessly for everyone coming anytime soon. “We’re not even close to solving it. We’re hopefully getting there one day with Nest,” he said. “But there’s a lot of infrastructure, there’s a lot of things that need to be built. That dream of what you’ve been sold over the last 50 years is not really what’s going to come to fruition. But it’s what’s easiest because it’s what people are emotionally attached to.”

Nonetheless, the dream of the smart home itself seems to be shifting, too, toward an interconnected ecosystem that chugs away in the background and simply works, no interaction required.


About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.