Sunday, November 30, 2008


When Alexander Parks invented plastic did he understand the long-term ramifications of his creation? Did Martin Cooper ever think, “Using this phone could potentially cause brain cancer or kill off all the bees in the world”? What about antibacterial soap? It kills bacteria but not just the bad bacteria it also kills the good ones too. Throughout this semester’s investigation into design I realized that we humans create things with no real understanding of what the future effects of our creation(s) will be. Today’s solutions may be tomorrow’s problems, then again maybe not. There is no way to know until the moment arrives. Can this be changed? Doubtful. Should we give up? Hell no. What can be done? Minimize the possible negative effects as best we can determine from our current perspective. Just look at humanitarian design much of it fails lamentably but some succeed and make a difference.

There are some professions, i.e. sciences, financial, government, that are perceived to be where the answer to our current socio-economic and ecological dilemmas lie but design should not be overlooked or underestimated. Design is about problem solving. It is about coming up with creative solutions for age-old problems but also for new problems. Anyone that doubts designers’ ability to affect large-scale, socio-economic change has only to look at Charles and Ray Eames’ “India Report” and its effects on the country. I believe that people that are serious about solving big, ongoing world issues need to take a page from the IDEO playbook about ideation. Design teams consist of, not only, designers but doctors, business people, lawyers, psychologists, fabricators amongst others. IDEO’s ideation process is so successful other fields of business are adopting it to solves all kinds of problems and generate new concepts. Get designers involved with other professionals and maybe together we can solve some problems. Our current global issues require some serious, out of the box, creative thinking. If others don’t/won’t reach out then reach out to them. If they won’t engage you engage them. In this time we live in it is our responsibility to contribute what skills and abilities we have to the greater good.

There is so much room for improvement, in all categories of design, in how we design, what we design, why we design and how we realize said designs. I hope that in my journey, and you in yours, as a designer(s) can figure out what it is that I/we are passionate about designing it will be a great accomplishment. If we then manage to design within whatever field we are passionate about, be it furniture, humanitarian, sex toys or whatever, we will be in a position to affect change from within. Combining your enthusiasm with educated consideration for the ramifications when designing will produce meaningful, considered design. Response to a design is subjective. A design is judged first on foremost on form and function, some may find a chair comfortable, some may find it beautiful, some both and some neither. It is also judged on its intent/meaning, some design has great intent/meaning but terrible form and function and thus is considered a failure. If you combine a “good” design with great intent, consideration and passion it develops integrity and can transcend the subjective. Transcendent design has the ability to affect real change. Change in the quality of a life, of many lives, possibly in all life. Change in one or many attitudes. Hopefully along my journey as a designer I will have the physical, mental and emotional fortitude to attain such a lofty goal. Hopefully we all will. Cause it ain’t easy. Yet even if not the attempt will hopefully inspire others to try and perhaps they will.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Conceptual Intent

It is a funny thing, at times, to be an industrial designer. Frequently I am introduced by acquaintances to other people as an artist to which I feel compelled to correct, “actually I’m a designer”. Why do I feel the necessity to distinguish the two? I often find myself explaining what it is that an industrial designer does. As a result I reflect on the subject often. One of the best descriptions I have come across is “Industrial designers design the cultural artifacts of tomorrow” (unfortunately I cannot remember the source). As creators of said “artifacts” we must consider what we are putting out there. Where does conceptual design fit into the scheme?

Designers are becoming more and more aware of the ramifications, both social and ecological, or are we. We the next generation of designers are constantly reminded of the great burden we carry into the future, the burden of solving the problems created by those before. When designing a product, you must ask yourself (and others) “am I advancing the good or propagating the bad?” When you design something in this day and age, even if you are designing only for yourself, there is always a minimum of two users you are designing for, yourself and the environment.

It seems to me that a lot of what we label as conceptual design, the design that blurs the boundaries between art and design, does not reflect these considerations. I think design varies from art in its resolution and the scale on which touches the world. I believe that good design and art are both born on a conceptual level but it is in the execution where their paths diverge. Conceptual design is in many ways easier, by taking user groups out of the equation the design is about self-gratification. If you are only “designing” for yourself, it is easy to say, “well they just can’t appreciate conceptual design” about those who don’t respond to it. You don’t have to take others or your design’s impact on others into consideration you can do whatever you want. This is all fine and well but as designers our products do affect the world and those in/on it. Take Max Lamb’s “Poly chair” for example, how do you feel about it? I personally think it total and utter garbage! Literally. Perhaps as a sculptural statement it says something about the danger to the environment and the ugliness of being wasteful but this is not its intent. In fact it is the complete opposite. It was designed to show “The chair illustrates the beauty of speed and spontaneity.” Yeah right, what a schmuck! Lamb hides behind conceptual design, spinning a lot of eloquent “art speak” around it to make the product seem like avant-garde design. What is this “product” in actuality? A F&%$#@ing UGLY blob looking chair made from an non-recyclable, environmentally unfriendly material, which is formed using an utterly wasteful process. Lamb gives design, conceptual or not, a bad name.

It may seem that I am down on conceptual design but this is not the case. My concern lies in how and why it is used and executed. There is a lot of self-serving egotistical design that is called conceptual design but is manly used as a means to attain fame. Conceptual thinking is what progresses design. Without conceptual thinking design is uninspired, stagnates and we wind up just rehashing the same old design in perpetuity. Boooooorrrrriiinggg! The Campana brothers are a better example of the positive vision of conceptual design. “The eternal attempt to make function poetic and poetic functional which is never reachable but at least if we come close we make people happy and dreamy”. They gray the line between art and design yet they still approach it as a design project. They are inspired by their environment, users, THE environment. They push material boundaries while trying to minimize the impact. They seem to be more humble and matter of fact about their designs. Love or hate their designs their passion, approach and humility inspires.

We design in a time when thinking conceptually may be the only way to solve our global problems but though contrived conceptually it must be executed conservatively. Want to make whatever you want? Be an artist, produce on an individual scale and try to put forth a meaningful message. Want to make product? Then design it. Draw your inspiration from the conceptual

Saturday, November 15, 2008

it ain't easy bein' green

Humans and locusts are the only creatures that completely decimate the environment they exist in but unlike locusts we do not have the ability to survive dormant in eggs once said environment is no longer able to sustain us. How is it that we the “most” intelligent creatures on he planet cannot manage to be better than insects? Yep that’s right we humans in all our infinite wisdom have far less ecological sense than an ant. It is due in large part due to our ability to design. Our ability to design allows us to inhabit environments that would not normally sustain us without adapting. This ability has fostered the idea that we can design ourselves out of every problem. Other species, that don’t have this option, have either evolved to their environment or migrate between environments that can support them and where they fit into the environmental schema in some way. Even those that cannot, will not or do not die off and their remains provide a service to the eco system that they could not be a part of. Herds of Wildebeest eat the grass of the Serengeti, their waste fertilizes the soil, nourishes the insects, they themselves nourish the predators which prevents over grazing and so on. In essence they help propagate the life cycle. Other creatures are forced to evolve physically and mentally by their environments, we have not adapted physically to our environment rather we have evolved mentally in a direction that allows us to believe we can force our environment to conform to our needs. Look where our arrogance has gotten us.

What is “Green” design? Green design has honest, good intentioned origins but then again “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. “Green”, like “Organic”, has become a marketing buzzword. People are capitalizing on an ever so slightly raised awareness to sell more products. By “slightly raised awareness” I mean aware enough of the issue to know that it is an issue but not educated on the subject. So they buy organic and green products because “we need to help the environment” without having a deeper understanding of what the costs and benefits are. Cooling a house in Arizona from 100 to 70 degrees, a change of 30, has less environmental impact than heating a house in New England from 0 to 70 degrees, a change of 70. Most people would think that because the cooling requires an air conditioner, which they know is bad for the environment, is worse for the environment than using natural gas, electricity or a fireplace to heat your house. I believe the zero impact concepts are both unattainable and impractical. Obviously business cannot continue as usual, so what are we to do? I think the “waste = food” idea proposed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book Cradle to cradle is the future we need to achieve. We need to attain a net positive impact. Yes we should recycle the waste we already have but we should be pushing VERY hard to develop products, systems, materials and lifestyles that can coexist with nature.

The governments of the world need to take a hand in “green” design/living. They need to establish mandates and regulations that determine what is “green” as they did with “organic” moving it to organic. Also environmental studies need to be a required part of school curriculums. Educating our population about the environment is paramount to our survival as a species. Reading books like Design like you give a damn and Cradle to cradle should required reading. Raising the collective knowledge level from “aware” to “educated” is an absolute necessity. Maybe given the monumental election we just had some changes will start happening. Here’s to hoping. Our generation has been left with a great burden and a vague, but expanding, consciousness of the environmental catastrophe and how to “solve” it.

We the next generation of designers need to educate ourselves so that we may put forth considered products that use materials in an appropriate, thoughtful manner. Imagine a product made of plastic that was designed and fabricated to last twenty years (or more). Would this product, which by design and/or necessity made use of the non-degrading nature of plastics, be less “green” than a product made up of all recycled materials that was designed with today’s one to five year product life policy? As most materials are recycled they lose some of there integrity thus after a few times they are totally useless. What of products made of recycled polymers that use over molds that prevent them from being recycled again? Some products may require the use of certain materials some may not. Cradle to cradle is the epitome of a “green” product. The physical book, as a product, is made from fully recyclable polymers instead of paper making it longer lasting and less susceptible to damage i.e. becoming waste. The ink used has less environmental impact than traditional inks and can be easily removed thus making it infinitely more recyclable. The tenets put forth within the pages educate the “user” and seem like more realistic ideas. We can’t get rid of consumerism, but we can alter how and what we consume. Designers need to look to natural systems to help design positive impact products. If the designers and the consumers gain a deeper baseline understanding they can be mutually more demanding of each other. I don’t believe that we as designers can force understanding or change upon the consumer but we can do our part and push for others to do theirs. Our ability to design has brought us to the brink; hopefully as a species designing together we can pull ourselves back from the precipice. Reading Cradle to cradle inspired me, read it, hopefully it will inspire you.If we open our own eyes perhaps we can help others understand what they are seeing when they open theirs.

Empower Don't Patronize

Can one design for another? Yes, it is what we as designers do. Can one design for another of another culture? This question is entirely more complex with an entirely more complicated answer. The simple answer is also yes. The real answer is some can and most cannot. Why is it that some humanitarian designs work and many do not? I believe it is utterly arrogant and patronizing for a designer living a comfortable life in a “developed” country to think they can a solve “the” problem, which they have identified from afar, of a person/people from another culture. It toes a precarious line of a neo imperialistic attitude to believe that we (those that have) know what is best for them (those in need).

Living in Ghana when I was young I saw and experienced things that, though I did not know it at the time, would have a profound and lasting impact on me that will remain with me for the rest of my life. While considering this assignment I was reflecting on my time immersed within the Ghanaian culture and would like to share a memory that I believe has relevance to the above question. Some friends who thought we might enjoy a taste of “home” invited my parents and I to lunch at a “western” hotel. The hotel, as I reflect back, was so symbolic of colonial arrogance and lack of understanding. It was a five-story hotel of which only two stories were complete, the third partially finished and the remaining two raw concrete structures only. We ate on the terrace, which was located by the pool out back. The pool being an Olympic size swimming pool, complete with high diving platform, that was bone dry. Obviously the hotel had been under construction when the British pulled out of Ghana and as soon as they did the locals stopped construction and never finished it. This particular one was made use of “as is”, but there are/were many examples of projects that were abandoned and left once the British did. In their colonial arrogance the British believed they were helping bring “civilization” to the poor Ghanaian people. As soon as they, and all their “infinite wisdom”, left the Ghanaians said “sure whatever pal…..thanks for the big flower pot” and went back about their lives.

So it is with humanitarian design. Assuming that we know what is best for them is ridiculous. They may not have the same education as we do, they may not have the same opportunities that we do, they may not have the same access that we do but none of this makes them less intelligent than us. Nor does it make them less capable of ideation. They MAY need our help in executing the solution but do they really need us to tell them what their problem is? I am not trying to say that we should not try and/or leave those in need to their own devices, rather advising that we need to consider how we go about helping. Nor am I trying to convey a sense of hopelessness because there are successes like the solar cooker.

The most successful designs come from a deep understanding of the user group. How can this be achieved? By empowering those in need to indentify and solve the problems they face. By involving them, or better yet them allowing us to be involved, in the entire design process. At the very least by immersing ourselves in the culture and living with the issues we can gain perspective on the problem(s). Want to design a better wheel chair try living in a wheel chair for a while. Want to design a portable shelter for homeless people try being homeless for a while. I guarantee you’ll gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of their plight. Informing someone in need that “X, Y &Z” is what they need will only breed resentment. Look at the problem and the solution of both the successes and failures and ask yourself and others “Why did it succeed/fail?” Showing willingness to help is the first and most important step. So I commend the failures as well as the successes because those that failed, whatever the reason, at least tried which is more than most have done. We should all try if we do the world will be a better place.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Designing Intent:

Can we design intent and meaning into objects? Can these products determine a user’s
behavior? Can they go as far as dictating/controlling a user’s actions? Does understanding the user give us an advantage in any of the above categories? Answering these questions is an inherent part of the design process, either consciously, unconsciously or a combination of the two we attempt to resolve some or all of these questions in the conception through the resolution of a product. All products are designed with some degree of intent and/or meaning in them. The degree varies from the broad spectrum (e.g. swiss army knife, see below) to the tight focus (e.g. “the Rabbit”, see right) and from product to product. Is it even possible to “design” a product with no intent or meaning? On a philosophical level if one were to design a product without intent or meaning it would have to be intentionally designed devoid of intent or meaning which in its self gives it intent and meaning. The act of designing is in fact the art of imparting intent and meaning into a thing. Though the intent is not, the meaning is subjective and remains fluid. Vibrators once had a very different meaning but basically the same intent. The designer imparts his or her meaning but the user(s) define(s) it, and it is subject to change at the users whim.
"The Rabbit" (above)is an example of a tight focus product. Its intent fairly straight forward and specific (satisfying a physical and possibly emotional need), its meaning , though subjective i suppose, dictates how the user interacts with it and arguably on some level can effect the users behavior before, during or after their interaction with it. Based on market success and the analysis of intent, meaning and use a very successful design. The Swiss Army Knife (left) is a product that has a intent (to be a multipurpose tool) yet at the same time has a multitude of intents (to be a tool that will serve in a multitude of situations) putting it into the broad spectrum of intent category while its meaning remains subjective. Its form, meaning and intent also dictates how the user should interact with it and using the same reasoning as the previous product it too is successful. Both distinctly different products with different meanings and intents but both judged with the same criteria.

The problem we, the designers, face is that the interpretation of the intent and/or the meaning
we have imbued or product with is subjective. So challenge that we have to confront in designing a product is to develop an empathic relationship with/understanding of our target user(s). Gaining a deeper understanding of our user group(s) allows the designer to tailor the intent/meaning of a product to said group so as to minimize the possible “lost in translation” effect. The other dilemma is that once the product is a reality we cannot control the potential misuse/abuse of said product, or can we? The better we understand the audience the more we can craft an explicit use into the product. Though this can never completely prevent the bastardization of a product or concept it can steer the user towards its intended function/meaning and away from its misuse. The Taser Shockwave (see right) “is the first generation of new TASER Remote Area Denial (TRAD) technology. Shockwave devices integrate TASER’s field-proven Neuro Muscular Incapacitation (NMI) technology into the first anti-personnel area-target system capable of not only denying personnel, but also incapacitating personnel with reversible effects.” Essentially it is designed/intended to be non-lethal but could possibly be used to lethal effect by someone. This is an extreme example of an abuse of intent but indicative of the dangers we strive against, hopefully. On the other hand sometimes the “law of unintended consequences” can have positive results. Take the Microplane products (see left)for example, designed as wood shaping tools and converted into one of the most recognized citrus zesters and cheese graters.

So what are we, the designers of the future, to do? We design our products by imbuing them with honest intent and meaning. We craft them, through form, style and function, so as to clearly infer the intent and meaning to our users without sacrificing the integrity thereof. We design to fulfill the needs while detering those of malicious intent from doing so. If they are determined they will, but as long as we are determined they may not, so be determined.
Good Luck!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Progression, change and Balance

Functionalism - “the notion that objects made to be used should be simple, honest, and direct; well adapted to their purpose; bare of ornament; standardized; machine-made, and reasonably priced; and expressive of their structure and materials - has defined the course of progressive design for most of the century.” (George Marcus, Functionalism, 1995, p.9.)

Is functionalism a good thing? What are the short term and long term socio-economic, cultural and ecological ramifications of functionalism? What is reasonably priced? As an idea l it is a noble dream of a Utopian world with “good” design for all. But who decides what is good design? In practice it has lead designers to beautiful solutions and terrible ones as well. Un-necessary ornamentation does not necessarily mean bad design, design is in and of itself about ornamentation. Without industrial design everything would look like engineers “designed” it. What of those who like ornamentation? It falls to designers to set the tone but this in and of itself is subjective and as such subject to change at any moment.

On a macro level we all like ornamentation, if we didn’t “that looks like an engineer designed it” would not have a negative connotation and industrial designers would not exist. It is in nature to want things that we perceive to be pretty. Perceiving an object to be beautiful gives it value and even more if others perceive it to be valuable as well. On a micro level we individually decide on the amount of ornamentation we prefer. Functionalism can be a great perspective to design from but not the only perspective to design from. Much of the avant-garde come not from need but from desire and it is the avant-garde that pushes the envelope and shows us a glimpse of the future. The founders of functionalism were great designers but not because of functionalism but rather functionalism became popular because of the great designers. It was a reaction to what had come before and without excessive ornamentation, extreme contrast, functionalism would just be plain and boring. If everything was functionalist people would start to design using excessive ornamentation to find contrast and balance. Seeking change, contrast and balance are what life is about. Without it we would, maybe have, become complacent, jaded, indifferent and bored. We must find the comfortable balance through innovative thoughtful design not matter the amount of ornamentation.

We currently live in a time of uncertainty and crisis. The environment is in a precarious state, the world economy is headed down the drain, people are becoming more isolationist by the minute. How did you we get here? The concept of “democratic” design is partially responsible. The concept of universally accessible design has led us to deplete resource at an incredible rate, fill/create landfills at an incredible rate and consume beyond our means and need. Designing reasonably priced products in this day and age generally means making sacrifices in materials, construction and design. Also the accessibility of products has fostered gluttony. We acquire things for the sake of having things and discard things recently acquired to make room to acquire new things we don’t need. Having more “stuff” does not make it better. Part of the problem is we are not satiated by a so-so product, or at best only for a short period of time. It’s like eating fast food, you go through the motions of eating, you tastes vaguely of it real counterpart but does not contain the same amount of nourishment and thus your body tells you to eat more. At this point you have a choice eat more crap or take the time, spend the many and make the effort to cook something that will taste better and nourish you longer. You can eat far less if it contains the right ingredients. You avoid obesity and are healthier of body and spirit. This translates to design as well designed, well fabricated products will take you farther and keep you content for longer.

The tenets of functionalism, as stated by George Marcus, may not be the solution for the future, in fact if ones believes the tenets then it is at least partially responsible for the problem. This is not to say functionalism is bad it has lead to some incredible designs. The change we as designers need to affect is that there needs to be accountability. There needs to be a revolution in design where designers are held accountable for their designs. Some might argue that designers are not always to blame for a bad design, that it is often the engineers or “bean counters” that ruin a perfectly good design and it may be a valid point, but not the less it starts with the designer and we need to get away from our “pass the buck” culture. Along with this and/or as a result of it we need to be more considerate in our designs by designing products that will encourage a much needed paradigm shift. Shifting our habits and mind set towards conservation and quality. Recognizing the difference between that which we want and that which we need. By changing what peoples perception of “accessible” is from cheap, short term acquisition to quality long term investment. We think nothing of getting a loan for fifteen thousand dollars to buy a car in this country yet we balk at a chair that costs eight hundred, even though a quality chair will prove to be beautiful and useful asset long after most cars will be rusting in a landfill somewhere. It is a dangerous prospect that to endure as a race we, the designers, must run the risk of designing ourselves into extinction by designing better, more durable, more timeless products. Also by designing better products less will be needed this has the negative side effect of needing less labor which translates to less jobs. Perhaps, and hopefully, it will only mean more work to produce less volume and higher quality. Change is needed. We should start now.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Functional Chairs:
Functionalism -
"the notion that objects made to be used should be simple, honest, and direct; ell adapted to their purpose; bare of ornament; standardized; machine-made, and reasonably pcriced; and expressive of their structure and materials - has defined the course of progressive design for most of the century." (George Marcus, Functionalism, 1995, p.9)
Chairs are inherently functional. They are designed to rest in and as such have certain parameters built into their design, namely human geometry. Designers will constrain the function of the chair by limiting the geometry to a tight focus, the Valet chair is a prime example of this as it is designed for men and specific needs thereof. Alternately designers will expand it to encompass a broad spectrum, the Pantower designed for one or more people to sit in a variety of configurations or the Aeron chair designed to to conform perfectly to the needs of a specific individual. Designs can be further refined by adding a specific function or set of functions to the chair , the Valet’s ability to hold clothes, Barcelona being targeted at certain audiences, Thonet’s No.14 and its mass production success. Chairs, due to their functional nature, lean heavily towards functionalism and are better for it they are. Many beautiful designs have been driven by function and purity of material yet some stand apart from the rest because certain aesthetic choices were taken into consideration. When speaking of chairs function is paramount but there is room for ornamentation at times, though often the ornamentation stems from and innovative solution for a sought after function. Functionalism does not mean devoid of ornamentation it means devoid of ornamentation for ornamentation's sake. Take Shaker design for example, it does not have frivolous ornamentation but it has beautiful details incorporated into it. This is accomplished by carefully considering a necessary function and highlighting it within the design. A key to beautiful, meaningful design is recognizing which functions can and/or should be highlighted. This is much easier to preach than to practice, highlighting a handle instead of a hinge or joint can mean the difference between beautiful and terrible design.

Chair Model no.14, Designed by Micheal Thonet for mass production constructed of bent solid wood with a wicker seat. This simple chair form remains one of the most successful and copied chair designs of all time. By 1930 50 million had been sold worldwide.

Barcelona Chair by Ludwig Meis van der Rohe. The chair was inspired by the folding chairs of the Pharaohs and the X shaped footstools of the Romans. Designed for dignitaries and royals the Pavillion.

Valet model no.PP250 by Hans J. Wegner. This chair (a.k.a. The Bachelor’s Chair) was designed to serve as a valet. The back formed to hold a jacket, the seat when lifted up holds a pair of pants and the tray revealed under the seat holds small personal affects.

Pantower by Verner Panton, The Pantower is an example of Verner Pantons desire to design comfortable, functional, playful seating that railed against preconceived notions of seating.


Aeron Chair by Donald Chadwick & William Stumpf. Designed based on letting fuction dictate the form. The designers developed a convictions about how the chair should function. The chair should do whatever it can to aleviate the stress caused by sitting for too long, it should accomodate a wide variety of body types, it should adjust to support an individual in any postition the wish and should have minimal impact on resources.

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