Sunday, November 30, 2008

As we design today we are redefining our profession. Every generation rethinks the world of design and every generation has a theme. Ergonomics, green, universal, art, the list of themes goes on. Right now we are forming our definition of design. What will it be? What matters to us? We have many paths from which to choose and perhaps there are trails we will blaze ourselves.

For me it is yet unclear. I see beauty and value in many forms of design. Art design for example has great potential to cause deeper thought on a mass scale while at the same time being beautiful and functional. At the opposite end of the spectrum humanitarian design meets immediate needs of people and may or may not be beautiful (it may not even be a physical object) but there is beauty in helping others. Both have great value; water filters certainly help people and clean water is a physical necessity but art is also a necessity only it is for our humanity rather than our physicality. So both are good and both are needed. Another thing the two share is they are not for the designer. One thing I believe to be very important is that we always design for others. If we cannot design something that other people want/need/enjoy then it is useless. Worse, it is destructive. If design becomes focused on the designer rather than the user it will fail, perhaps not immediately but eventually.

One theme of design which is necessary and spans across all types of design is ecologically conscious design. No matter what it is we create, we must stop contributing to waste and pollution.

One thing that will certainly shape how and what we design is the falling economy. Already people are starting to cut back on spending. As industrial design is largely product based this certainly effects us. On the product level it will force designers to be more frugal. This might be done through making sacrifices and settling for lower quality or it could bring about innovation. We may be forced to create cheaper manufacturing techniques, figure less expensive ways of distribution, and find new or different materials. These industrial innovations would create an entirely new set of rules and boundaries in which to design thus creating even more potential for new and different outcomes which we will shape.

Hopefully we will all carry our own definitions and themes into our field and once again change the face of design. But this is not a given. Even in a time where the necessity of change seems incredibly apparent to us, it is not to others. We must fight to bring our styles and ideologies to the real world and to let others know what we care about.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The first things that come to mind in a conversation about art and design are mass production and functionality. Art “by definition” cannot be mass produced while design “by definition” must be functional. Of course there are exceptions and that is where the real conversation begins .

For example Tomasso Lanza of the RCA designed a coffe cup which is cast with a 90 degree angle in the botton of the cup. Because of this angle it must be placed on the edge of a table. This forces one to be more cautious and thus pay more attention to the object. He is making a statement about disposable products and objects. They are meaningless to us, we do not care about them, yet you must care about this cup. This cup could be slipcast with ease and therefore be mass produced. It still retains its meaning despite its production and it is functional. Yet it is not design. It is bigger than that. This is a great illustration of how “design” has become the realm of what art should be. It seems that in art it is taboo to make any statement too obvious or too simple. Under the guise of a designer an artist can make bold statements such as this without fear of ridicule. Ironically the avenue of design makes art accessible both physically and mentally.

On the other hand you have Marteen Baas who makes chairs out of clay. They are all hand made and thus they are unique. They are colorful, absurd and playful; if Dr. Seuss were an industrial designer he would have made these, except the colors would have been better and there might be some feathers involved. But that’s all beside the fact. They are creative but involve very little craftsmanship, in fact it is as if he intended them to look bad, which in a way makes it all very much like contemporary art. These chairs, however, are by no means art. They are simply a different way of designing a chair.

Then you have Daniel Jo’s Promise ceramics which don’t really do anything and don’t have a point.

In reality it all comes down to intent. If the designer/artist wants to make a point or raise a question or generally have greater intent than creating an object then call it art. If the artist/designer wants to make something that is normally functional into something that is beautiful, then its design. If it doesn’t really do anything and doesn’t have a meaning then its kitche. I think the line between art and design is pretty clear if we can allow ourselves to ditch preconceptions while not giving in to relativism.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Designer’s Accord is just that, an accord for designers. Its purpose is to bring designers together on the issue of sustainability and through education and action lessen the impact of the design world on the earth.

The Designer’s Accord was developed in 2007 by Valerie Casey. Valerie is a designer for IDEO. In the winter of 2007 the idea of the Designer’s Accord came to her while she was on a flight. She realized that she as a designer was contributing in a large way to waste and pollution in the world. So she began to write. The initial document was called the Kyoto Treaty and it basically outlined the same things as the Designer’s Accord with some small variations.

The Designer’s Accord has three levels of conscription; supporter, adopter and endorser. Supporters are individuals within the design community such as students, freelance designers and artists. They are expected to adopt the guide lines to their practices as well as evangelize the movement. Adopters are the main constituent. They consist of organized groups within the design community. This includes Design firms, corporations and educational institutions. Endorsers are organizations that can add awareness and provide infrastructure for education and outreach.

Supporters, adopters and endorsers all have to agree to guidelines that are specific to their type of adoption but they are all roughly the same. The guidelines include a commitment to publicly declare their adherence to the accord. Dialogue with clientel about sustainable design. Educate their colleagues, teams etc. about sustainable design. Figure out their “footprint” and commit to reducing it annually. And finally contribute to communal knowledge of sustainable and social design.

The Designer’s Accord is an important step toward the kind of awareness that is necessary in today consumer culture. It has the potential to create a revolution in design but can only do so if individuals decided to make a difference. As artists we are a volatile bunch and as a critical link in the production chain we are influential. The responsibility is ours.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

There is certainly no shortage of need in the world and there are many people willing to help. Yet it is incredible to see how many failed humanitarian efforts there are. Most of these efforts fail because no one asks people with obvious need what they need. The agency of the “needy” is not considered; they are victimized and therefore deemed helpless.

Asking people what they need is the first step to a successful aid effort. By asking you are gaining understanding as well as affirming agency. Generally people giving aid and people receiving aid are very different. When you ask you gain insight into a different culture. This culture has specific traditions, foods, shelter, religion, calendar. It is critical to understand all these things when designing. This makes designers especially well suited to meet humanitarian needs.

In industrial design we create products that must sell. In order to ensure that they sell we must understand our user groups’ wants, desires, and needs. Often these user groups are very different from us in their wants and needs, yet through research and testing we are able to get outside of ourselves in order to create something, which may not be at all desirable to us, but fits the needs of our user group. Despite this many designers create humanitarian aid solutions which fail. Architecture for Humanity, however, has a model which goes a step further in “de-victimizing” the needy.

Not only does Architecture for Humanity ask people what they need but they involve them in the design. This happens in several different ways. In some projects, mostly in third world countries, they help communities to design their own villages and buildings. First they facilitate conversation to discover needs and desires. Then they come up with different plans which are brought before the community for approval. When a final design is agreed upon the entire town signs off on the plans. Once the plans are done building begins. Under the supervision of the architects the whole town helps to build their new village. When everything is finished no signage is put up to indicate the town as a AFH project.

By working this way the people being helped have ownership. Perhaps the design would have been largely the same whether the town was involved or not but the involvement is crucial none the less. If people understand why a design is the way it is they are more likely to embrace it. If people work for something they are more likely to value it and feel like they own it. If people own something they take responsibility for it and they care for it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Products have no meaning of their own. Rather they are given meaning by cultural context. This culture is formed largely through branding and advertising.

In a consumeristic society cost plays an important role in the meaning of a product. Cost is driven by both actual value: price of materials and production, and by perceived value. So while there is actual value differences among products the cost difference is not always a function of that. For example, Advil brand ibuprofen and CVS brand ibuprofen differ only in that Advil has a sugar coating; a minimal actual value difference. The price difference, however, is greater than the actual value difference because Advil is a name brand. A name brand can charge more because they are known and at the same time appears to be a better product because it is more expensive. This works on a larger scale as well. For example a Maserati is ten times as expensive as a Toyota but the actual cost is not that different. The reason cost affects the meaning of a product is accessibility. If a product is largely inaccessible it is more desirable and therefore turned into a symbol of status and power as in the case of a car or at very least it is made to appear more reliable, as in the case of Advil. Of course this perceived worth of products has to do with more than just price; consumers are also being told what to think.

Through advertisement a company takes whatever product they are selling and gives it artificial meaning largely through context and tone. A certain razor blade is made appealing to men because it is being used by a muscular model being ogled by a scantily clad woman. A certain computer is made attractive to young people because its spokesperson wears cool clothes and makes fun of old stodgy people. If the advertising is effective in creating meaning and value for their product then people will buy it. In some cases it is bought by the people who fit the stereotypical user group ieg the young person buys the “young person computer” because they are young. Sometimes the buyer does not fit that user group but has a desire to fit and therefore buys the product eg the “old stodgy person” buys the “young person computer” because they want to appear young. Advertising is reliant on people identifying with or aspiring to certain stereotypes. Products receive meaning when they are purchased with the intent of fitting a mold.

Though it is mostly popular culture that decides the meaning of products through advertising and branding, consumers do have some agency. Usually this agency occurs in small subcultures. For example mountain biking, a now multi-billion dollar industry, began with a small group of people in California who liked to ride their bikes off road. Agency is also seen in art culture, where outdated fashions are altered to create something new, and box fans are made into sculpture. But this is not the norm.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


“What is art?” this age old question is still alive and well today, and the answer, as always, remains ambiguous. At RISD all students must deal with this question at least during their freshman year while they grapple with new freedoms and challenges. After this time many students go on to fine arts majors where they continue to grapple with the question. Wikipedia says “art is the process or product of deliberately and creatively arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions, especially beauty.” One would be hard pressed to find a painting major that would say beauty is enough to make something art, in fact it is for this reason that many feel illustration is not art. Many feel that art must convey a message and should be clear and concise. Others say that art should simply evoke some kind of emotion, some feel that it is enough to have some deep personal motivation that is apparent only to the artist and never the viewer. Many artists today claim that everything is art including their “lifestyle.” Certainly these questions pertain to painters, printmakers, sculptors and the like, but what about “designers”? It seems that questions are not asked nearly so much of the definition of design as they are art. No one is asked us sophomore year “what is design?” at least not with any importance, nor were we given a definition to work with. It seems that our role as designers is simply inferred from a popular culture driven by consumerism. In this culture that is causing many would be “artists” to become “designers” it is not surprising that people aren’t asking questions; it is assumed that design is simply a “real job” for creative people. Rather than settling for this we should be asking questions. What is design?

To begin to answer this question is an enormous task. The first step in answering this is establishing some point of reference from which we can base further speculation. It is commonly accepted that design is different from art in that it has a function beyond decoration; it is functional. In order to use this statement we must define ‘functional’. The dictionary definition of functional is “having or serving a utilitarian purpose; capable of serving the purpose for which it was created.” A key word in this definition is utilitarian which is defined as “having regard to utility or usefulness rather than beauty, ornamentation, etc.” It is clear, however, that the world does not accept this as a definition of design. If this were the case posters would be two-toned and have the largest type-face possible, all buildings and cars and shoes would look the same and be made of the most durable and least expensive material possible. Color and pattern would be of no significance. In essence if we accept this definition of design we are stuck with pure functionalism.

Functionalism is, no doubt, a huge factor in design today and has been since the end of the Victorian era when Modernism began. Modernism is a term used to describe the aesthetic of functionalism between the turn of the century and the mid-late twentieth century. Modernism advocated a bare bones approach to “design.” It centered on cost, industrial production, and efficiency. Modularity became popular in this time largely advocated by the architect Corbusier. But as pure as these designers tried to be in their thought and as much as they broke with old ideals of beauty they were certainly concerned with creating their own aesthetic. This concern for aesthetic proves that a purely functionalist definition of design is not a sufficient one; beauty always must play a role. Moreover, it cannot just be any beauty. The stark beauty of modernism no doubt has a strong appeal but to many proved uninhabitable, and even inhuman. Ray and Charles Eames, two of the greatest proponents of modernist industrial design and architecture, themselves had a home “cluttered” with nick knacks and decorations.

As a side note which is might be helpful in defining design, this is a point at which design largely breaks from art. As we have just noted modernist design was largely inaccessible to the masses and was therefore ineffective. In the same way modernist art was inaccessible and was largely rejected. This triggered a turning inward an incurvatus in se, that the art world has largely not recovered from and has caused many to claim that art is dead. Conversely the world of design is in a much different state, because it has been forced to deal with the faults of modernism, though it is hard to say if design is healthier.

Based on this apparent need for humane beauty and the consideration of the individual in design, we must re-shape our definition of design. We could say that design must be functional, utilitarian and simultaneously aware of its user. This is roughly the definition we see today, the one that is most accepted at RISD and beyond. It involves identifying user groups, researching markets and ergonomic studies; it puts the human before the product, or so it seems. Ironically, design has, to some extent, become a tool for taking money from individuals, many of whom cannot afford it, and giving it to those who already have it. At the same time it is indirectly creating waste that is harmful to everyone on earth. Design is being used by the rich executive who is made or broken by the level of exploitation and deceit they are able to achieve. In this sense design is in no way putting humanity before product. Our current definition of design is meager and ambiguous and, in our disposable, consumer culture, it panders to the deceitful and wasteful.

Thankfully things are starting to change. With the rise of awareness about the environment, the current world financial crisis and continued humanitarian travesties the design world is beginning to wake up. Designers are a crucial cog in the machine of the modern consumer market and thus have potential power. Being a financially stable, skilled and critically thinking group of individuals, designers have not only power but also the responsibility to bring about change. Those below us on the chain of production are largely financially bound and those above us have too much to lose. As the next generation of designers we must redefine ourselves in a way that will stabilize our economy, aid those in need and protect our planet.

Sunday, October 19, 2008