Friday, November 28, 2008

Form, Function AND Emotion = Design

Whether you love it or hate it there is one thing that conceptual design/ experimental design/ art design or whatever else you want to call it does well, it makes people think and talk. You will never see someone talking about a Martha Stewart bowl from K Mart the same way someone talks about a Hella Jongerius vase, and there's a reason for that. The Martha Stewart bowl is just your generic bowl with some random decoration on it. It's a bowl. It works. It's painfully familiar because you've seen it a thousand time before with someone else's name on it. There is no thought in it other than "how can we make 100,000 bowls for middle-aged house wives at $14.99 a piece". The Jongerius vase on the other hand is different and unique. It has ideas behind it's already beautiful form that makes it that much more beautiful. The ideas in the Jongerius vase are human ideas, not economic ideas. Ideas about individuality, culture, process and story. It is human ideas that engage us in a dialogue with the products that we buy and live with, not price points. In addition to making a product look good and work well, designers and business people need to realize the value that can be added to a product by considering the ideas behind it and how it engages the user on an emotional level.

Why should we care about creating dialogue between people and their products? Because just like people relationships with products are created over time through a shared dialogue. With people this dialogue takes the form of conversation and shared experience. With products this dialogue is created by using the product over time and connecting with the look feel, culture, stories and ideas of the product. So really no matter the product a dialogue is going to occur between it and the user but it is the designers job to embed enough interesting layers into the product in order to create a strong dialogue that creates a deeper, more meaningful relationship. This idea can be compared again to our relationships with people. Who do you connect with on a deeper level? Your average Joe that goes day by day doing the same ordinary things and never really has anything interesting to say or thoughts on just about anything. Or someone who likes to try new things and has unique thoughts and opinions, some you don't always agree with, but you respect him for looking at things beyond the surface. Hopefully you would connect with the person that has more to offer. More layers of thought and personality. This is exactly the same for products. You connect with the ones that have more to offer, the ones that satisfy you functional, stylistic, and emotional needs. Now since we do live in a consumerist culture where almost all products are driven by price I will appeal to the business of design. People long to own and experience things that are unique or at least perceived to be unique. They are sick of the mundane functionalist crap that all looks that same and does not excite them. It comes down to basic business theory. If your product can satisfy more of the user's needs then it is going to be better than your competitor's and you are going to sell more product and make more money. Designers need to remember that emotional needs are needs that must be addressed in a product.

Now I'm not saying that every product out there should have a paragraph that comes with the product explaining how and where it was made. Nor a paragraph explaining how you new mixer engages you with the process of making bread dough. I just believe that designers should recognize the emotional value of the materials and processes they choose, as well as the culteral signifigance of the product, and try to design the product in a way that brings that emotion out for the user to connect with. If we as designers can start doing this on a larger scale then we will be creating objects for the masses that the masses will want to keep and not just throw away in a year.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Conceptual _____________

When reading through my classmate’s blog posts about conceptual design there were similar critiques about what was wrong with conceptual design. Namely that conceptual design is overpriced, unattainable to the masses, and pointlessly strays from the function of an object. I would agree with these points because there is a lot of terrible conceptual design that has risen to momentary fame because of great product photography, marketing, and being associated with a star designer. But it is the great examples of conceptual design that impact me on a deeper level that make me such a strong advocate of conceptual design.

I am often disappointed with the work of the big name designers of our time because they have ascended to such fame that simply attaching their name to a product almost guarantees the product’s success on the high-design market. But there is a reason why most of these star designers are as big as they are and that’s because at one point in their careers they actually did design something amazing. This is usually at the beginning of their careers, a time when they had to rely on their talent and vision to carry them, not their name. A good example of this phenomenon is the Dutch designer Marcel Wanders. His early work with Droog design for the Dry Tech exhibition in 1996, namely the knotted chair, launched him onto the international design scene. He quickly followed up with other fantastic designs like the vase cast from a condom stuffed with eggs to assert that he was there to stay. But now that he has become the next Phillipe Stark he has begun to rely on his name to promote some pretty stupid shit. An example is his New Antique series that takes a classic spindle furniture vernacular and paints it black, adds a paragraph explaining the concept (that doesn’t actually explain the concept) and calls it a revolution. It is the designer like who Marcel Wanders has become that perpetuates this idea that the conceptual designer produces excessive one off crap with a paragraph justifying its existence. A designer that goes against this trend and has stayed true to her design process is Hella Jongerius.

She too was catapulted to fame by Droog design around the same time as Wanders was but instead of relying on the power of her name she relies on her talent to keep her a major player in design. Jongerius designs for all scales of production from one off pieces for galleries to industrially produced products for Vitra. In almost all of her designs she takes a very hands on approach and gets very involved with material and process exploration. Her designs are not so much characterized by technical material innovation but rather conceptual material and process innovation that produce unexpected and beautiful products. Her Long Neck and Groove Bottles demonstrate this process by recognizing the similarities that glass and porcelain have (they both need heat to be transformed, they both come from the earth) and combined them in a range of vases that are all related yet each one is different. She has continued with the idea of each piece being a little unique in her current production work with the introduction of the polder sofa. Jongerius does not try to make bold ridiculous statements that are accompanied by a paragraph of bullshit instead she draws on the meanings and possibilities in materials and processes to make really interesting and beautiful designs that work too, when having it work is a goal for the project.

Unfortunately most conceptual design is fairly expensive and only high end stores in major cities showcase this type of work. Sometimes this price is justified by the material choice or the craftsmanship but other times it’s artificially inflated. However I feel that some products that could actually be mass produced and for a decent price remain at these inflated high prices because the market for them is small so the batch being produced is small. If more businesses were willing to take a risk in a well designed product with a thought behind it then conceptual design might be more affordable. However, business people have a hard time seeing how the ideas in conceptual design matter at all when they’re looking primarily at the aesthetics, the function and the bottom line, cost. That is why the best of conceptual design looks good, works decently well and has a great idea behind it.

Honestly I think this whole divide between art and design and people trying so hard to classify it is a bit ridiculous. Conceptual design gets a lot of criticism because it has the word design attached to it. Who the hell cares if it’s art of design if it’s bad ass then it’s BAD ASS!!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Design Matters...... no really it matters!

In last week’s post I used the Katrina Furniture Project as an example of good humanitarian design. The Katrina Furniture Project was one of many projects from Art Center College of Design’s initiative Design Matters. The initiative was started in 2001 to explore “social and humanitarian applications of design and responsible business practices”. Mostly in conjunction with major corporations and non-profit groups, students have worked on projects that try and address the biggest problems facing the world today by practicing design in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Rather than trying to solve the big problems in the world like eradicating HIV or designing a universal refugee shelter, Design Matters projects are usually community specific, like a medical clinic in Nepal or a public ad campaign about earthquakes in LA. As I said in last week’s post I believe that community specific is the best way to go about humanitarian design.

I believe that Art Center with its Design Matters program is leading the way in humanitarian and sustainable design in the US, which is already becoming the next big thing in design. As much as I would love for the US to rise on the international scene as a powerhouse in conceptual design, much like The Netherlands has over the past 15 years, I think that that is nearly impossible given that the most important thing in American consumer culture is make it cheap. And if there is no market for it, it will not flourish. Instead America NEEDS to become the leaders in humanitarian and sustainable design if we ever want to get back to where we were in the 1950’s in terms of design innovation. I believe that we can do this. President elect Barack Obama has made it clear that he intends for the US to become a leader in technical innovation to solve the energy and climate crises, which is going to need the innovation of the design community to work. That also means that it is up to designers to be innovative in these fields and it is up to our educational institutions to start emphasizing these fields in their curriculum.

Design Matters is a great example of an educational institution taking charge in helping to solve some of the biggest problems the world has ever seen. I think that RISD ID is taking small but good steps in the direction that Art Center has gone with the addition of Design for Social Entrepreneurship and Service Design to its course offering but it needs to do more if it wants to become a major player like Art Center has become.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Humanitarian Design and the perpetuation of imperialism

The world is fucked up! Half of the 6.5 billion people on this planet don’t have continual access to the essentials to human life (food, water, shelter ect.). Children die every day of diseases that were eradicated from developed countries a century ago, and the statistics and stories just keep coming. These problems are so massive and seemingly unsolvable that it’s easy to feel discouraged as a designer as to how you can help solve these problems. I think part of the reason that we feel this way is that there is the expectation that the design community can come up with ONE solution that will work fantastically everywhere. ONE disaster relief shelter that will be the “be all end all” shelter, ONE water filtration system to quench the world’s thirsty, ONE co-op service that will work anywhere from the villages of Bangladesh to the urban slums of Brazil. The fact is that we are not all ONE people, we are a collection of different cultures living in different geographies with different histories, and we need different solutions to fit these needs.

Another issue that I feel is getting in the way of humanitarian design is the fact that most of these humanitarian design solutions for third world countries are coming from the developed world. It’s not that I feel that a westerner can never design something that truly works for someone in the third world but rather I believe that this practice perpetuates an imperialistic mentality about people of the third world. You can see this clearly in ad campaigns from international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) such as Save the Children. Ads that have pictures of a starving African child who’s mom has died of AIDS and needs you $10 donation in order to survive only perpetuate this imperialistic mentality of the person of the third world as helpless and unable to take care of themselves and who needs a Westerner to come save them with everything that we pride ourselves with in our developed land.
I believe that the best way to solve humanitarian crises is by harnessing the local community to help develop solutions to their problems. One of the best example of humanitarian design that I saw on the Cooper Hewitt’s Design for the Other 90% site was the Katrina Furniture Project. Students from the University of Texas and Art Center College of Art and Design came up with the idea to create community workshops that use the debris from hurricane Katrina to make furniture such as church pews to sell in an effort to help the victims of hurricane Katina get back up on their feet. This project is community specific and that’s why I think it is so successful. While flipping through that site I found that a lot of the better designs were developed by designers in or around the countries that were in need of these designs.
Obviously this can’t be applied to all situations because a village destroyed by an earthquake needs immediate help and the design process takes time so this approach applies more to chronic problems of poverty and despair, which there is plenty of. Maybe as designers we shouldn’t be designing one product to solve the world’s problems but rather we should be designing systems that would enable the people affected by these problems to “co-design” the solutions so that the imperialistic mentality associated with western handouts it eliminated.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The creation of meaning

When talking about the meaning of a product I believe that it is important to distinguish between two types of meaning, personal meaning and cultural meaning. I should make it clear that I don’t believe that a designer can ever truly design either a specific personal or cultural meaning into a product. However I do believe that it is much easier for a designer to create a product that will take on some emotionally deeper personal meaning for the user as opposed to creating a product that will take on a cultural meaning that evolves from the society at large.

The personal meaning of a product evolves over time as the user has experiences with it. Even with a mass produced object where there are 100,000 identical copies of the same product the personal meaning of that product is going to be different to every owner because everybody is different. Take a French press for making coffee in the morning as an example. Even though the process of using the French press is done the same way, to each person their French press means something different. To one person it may be their most beloved thing because they start each morning with the French press and it provides them with coffee to get them going. To another it may just be a device to make coffee and if it doesn’t work well than it’s an obnoxious device that they have to struggle with every morning and for them the meaning of their French press is a negative one as opposed to the previous user. All products will take on some sort of meaning with every user but there is an opportunity within every object for a designer to design a product where an emotionally deeper and positive meaning can emerge. This deeper meaning can be achieved by using the power of story, and true user customization or “co-design”.
Story is something that is quintessentially human. Nothing else on this planet can claim to have a concept of story. Stories are something we connect with emotionally and are drawn into. Remember when you were a kid and stories of other worlds seemed so real that you had an intense connection with it. Designers can harness this power to create intense emotional bonds between people and the products they buy by weaving story into their products. When there is a story behind the design then there is something human in the product for people to connect with and human relationships are the strongest ones there are. In addition to imbedding story designers can also create deeper meaning by allowing the user to be involved in the design and creation of the product. This idea of the user finishing or customizing the product is called co-design. A great example of this is the Do Create series by Droog Design for the Dutch ad firm/publisher KesselsKramer. In this group of products the user bought a standardized, mass-produced design and then “finished” it by carrying out the process that the designer had set of for them. An example is the Do Hit Chair, which comes as a big metal cube that the user must smash with a sludge hammer in order to create the chair form. By smashing the chair the user goes through an experience of helping to make the finished product and every time the user goes to sit in the chair they are reminded of how hard and fun it was to create their chair and thus a deeper emotional bond is formed and with it a meaning that is unique to each individual. Designers should look to the power of story and of co-design as tools to add value to their designs.

The cultural meaning of products is a little different than the personal meaning of products. The cultural meaning of a product is something that evolves over time and is the collective understanding of what that product means in that society. The cultural meaning of a product depends on a vast number of people, as opposed to the personal meaning which depends on only one person, there for it is much harder to imbed a specific meaning into a product because there will be such a varied ranges of personal meaning that make up the collective cultural meaning. The cultural meaning of a product also depends on how many people either own or know of the product. The car has so much cultural meaning because everyone owns one or at least is very familiar with one, on the other hand the series of clay furniture designed my Maarten Baas is known about only in design circles and thus has not affected enough people to take on a cultural meaning in the same way the car has. I feel that it is important that designers realize that they can never design a specific meaning into a product because meaning is something that evolves out of experience over time. Designers should realize however that meaning is not something to be ignored and that they should strive to create products that set up situations to create deeper human connections with people as a way to add value to a product.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

slow design

Since the start of the industrial revolution more than 200 years ago the mentality has been to make more products accessible to everyone by making them faster and cheaper with the end goal really being to maximize profits for companies. It’s simple economics, the more people you can sell something to the more money you can make. Although this “democratization of design” has made it possible for everyone to own the basic products and appliances they need in order to be comfortable in the modern world, the sacrifice of both quality of design and quality of manufacture in order to bring the price point down has had a devastating effect on our environment as well as the relationships we have with the objects and environments around us. The problem stems from the consumerist culture that we live in where what we have is never enough and we are made to think that we need this year’s greatest product in order to be happy. This mentality has resulted in people buying new versions of objects that they already own because “it’s brand new” and throwing their old stuff in the trash. I believe that people do this because they don’t have any emotional connection to the mundane mass-produced objects around them so they have no problem getting rid of it and replacing it with another soulless object that they think will be better than the last. I have been a big fan of products that have a concept, meaning, or a story behind them for a couple of years now and only recently did I find that this kind of design has a name, slow design.

The slow design movement is a young one that has only solidified into its current state over the past five years. Slow design is not about how long it takes to design something but rather it is a design philosophy that is in sync with the other “slow” movements like the slow food movement. Slow design advocates for the design of objects, spaces, and images in a way that reduces the “human, economic, industrial and urban recourse metabolism” ( The slow design movement is essentially a dramatic shift from the consumerist society that we live in. They believe that the focus of design should be repositioned on “individual, socio-cultural and environmental well being” ( Probably the best examples of slow design have come from the Dutch design collective Droog Design. Droog’s work often challenges the notions of what products are supposed to be or do and their objects oftentimes engage the user in a dialogue that creates a unique experience for the user. One piece in particular is the “come a little bit closer bench” by Nina Farkuche that is designed to encourage social interaction between strangers sitting on the bench. It is a simple steel frame with a bed of marbles as the top with discs that you sit on. Because the marbles allow you to move around the bench encourages you to bump into strangers hopefully striking up a conversation in the process. Another example is the “Chair Prosthesis” kits by 5.5 Designers, which saves old and broken chairs by repairing them with bright green parts that are adaptable to any chair. Instead of throwing the furniture to the dump it takes on new life and a new personality with the prosthesis, thus reducing the consumption of resources which slow design pushes for.

Slow design may not be the most practical design solution for the global economy but I think that applying slow design’s principles in the design process is an important step in minimizing our impact on the environment. For the past 50 years we have been living in a consumer economy where design is driven by making things look really nice in order to appeal to the consumer on the visceral level, which is the level that most consumers respond to. On a smaller level design has also been focusing on making object work better, which is a great thing to strive for in design but sometimes a well functioning objects lack style and aesthetic beauty. I believe that a truly great design has to engage the user on the visceral level and perform its specified function well, but it also must engage the user on an emotional level and that is what’s missing in design now that slow design is advocating for. Most good examples of emotionally engaging design is coming from the avant garde and is inaccessible to most people due to either price or distribution. Designers need to apply the same kind of ingenuity that the avant garde use and wrap those ideas into products that can be accessed by lots of people. However, this action cannot result in the mass production of millions of cheap products with a diluted version of a good idea because that would be contradictory to the principles of slow design. I, as well as the slow design movement, advocate for small the medium batch production products that are preferably made locally so that communities can rally around local design and industry like they use to. Obviously there are many hurdles to achieving these goals in the global economy that we live in today but applying the slow design principles in design is a great step in the right direction to changing the overall consumerist culture of this country.

As a society we no longer cherish the majority of our belongings because they are the product of a consumerist design culture that is driven by low price points in order to maximize profits. This has resulted in consumption on a massive scale that is filling up our landfills and depleting our natural resources and it needs to stop now. By applying the principles of slow design we can start to change the mentality of the consumer from one of wanting the newest and flashiest thing the wanting the most interesting and emotionally engaging object that will provide them with a lifetime of experience. We must do this now or the state of our environment will only get worse.

Monday, October 13, 2008


During my short career as a designer I have always been weary of functionalism as a design philosophy yet when I design I find myself consciously following the functionalist principles. I believe that the functionalist principles are good to take into account while designing as they are very practical and will lead to products that work but I have been weary of them because when I hear functionalism I just think of boring generic products that have been pared down to their essentials and are void of any cultural reference. The history of the rise of functionalist principles is interesting because it was a way of designing products to combat the amount of neo-classically influenced crap that was being produced in the 19th century. Yet as time progressed and the functionalist principles were adopted as the norm for designing something was lost, culture. With every functionalist object existing only to perform a task and with an aesthetic to match you start to see objects starting to all look the same, this phenomenon is similar to the rise of the international style in architecture. With the perfection of mass-production more and more of the same objects are being produced with nothing unique of special about them. We can see that although the functionalist principles were created with the best of intentions the result is that functionalist designs have become what they were created to combat. I believe the big thing that the functionalist manifesto is lacking is the recognition of culture as an important part of product design. We can see a resurgence of cultural references in product design within the past 15 years as a way of feeding our desire to experience something other than the sterile styling of functionalist design.