We recently had the chance to chat with designer Naoto Fukasawa and IDEO's Jane Fulton Suri, who served on the jury for last year's Braunprize selections. As keen observers of the world at large and the man-made objects and obstacles we encounter on a regular basis, both Fukasawa and Suri had plenty of interesting things to say about the current state of design and just what it means to be 'normal.'
Core77: It seems that you are both highly attuned to the world around you—or rather, us. Both the Super Normal and Thoughtless Acts document what might be considered as everyday or mundane, but actually have been accepted or adopted by users as conventions. Have either of you noticed memorable examples of these things that we take for granted lately?
Naoto Fukasawa: I have been conducting the 'Without Thought' workshop to young designers for over 15 years. In these workshops, what I have been hoping for the participants to understand is that our behaviors and movements are not produced by ourselves thinking of how to move our bodies every second but instead, such acts are produced by our body naturally responding to given situations and environments.
For example, walking is defined by a sequence of movements of our legs and feet: placing one foot forward on the ground and then moving the other to follow. When we recognize a surface that is not the greatest to step on, we naturally avoid it and if we lose balance by doing so, perhaps we try to put our hands on walls and so on. Mountaineering and rock climbing face limited surfaces to place our hands and feet and sometimes the areas everyone subconsciously grabs get polished. Making a decision for a behavior is a response of body beyond one's consciousness, and in this context, we are all sharing something greater than being individuals: human as bodies.
Our environments, situations and information ignite our behaviors. Specifically, our environments, situations and our body are synchronized to each other and create our environments.
Jane Fulton Suri: Boarding planes these days there's always a scramble to find space to stash luggage in an overhead bin—people close the bin when it's full and thereby simplify the search for everyone. And I see lots of new habits have emerged with our attachment to flat-screen mobile phones: The phone is always with you so it's a handy bookmark for your magazine when you have to put it down for a minute; it's a weight to hold the page open when cooking from a recipe book; an immediate surface to attach a sticky-note as a reminder, the lit screen is a flashlight to find the bathroom at night or, in unity with a crowd of fans, to light up a stadium, and if you reverse your phone camera, the screen is better than a mirror for checking if there's something in your teeth or putting on makeup! Social cues come into play at meetings too: if your phone is placed on the table face down, you're there to pay attention, if it's face up, you signal that something else is important!
To what degree does technology (i.e. the prevalence of mobile devices) amplify, beget or perpetuate new 'thoughtless acts?' And to what degree have these objects become 'super normal?'
JFS: Very quickly it's become completely normal to depend upon mobile devices. At the press of a button, the swipe of a finger, a glance of a screen, we can access virtually any human knowledge anytime, anywhere. No wonder we feel we've lost part of ourselves when we forget to bring our smartphone along. Years ago, walking down a busy sidewalk, sometimes I'd be taken aback to discover that I had no idea of pedestrians behind me—as a regular motorcyclist, I'd become so used to the rear-view I had from handlebar mirrors I'd glance at to my right and left. We literally incorporate new forms of awareness, embodying the power technology affords us.
NF: It takes time for new things to be recognized as normal. When everyone chooses a common product and uses it until we all feel having this product in our life is ordinary, this product becomes normal. Supernormal is something that overturns a concept of design as something that is new and different. When we create something that is new with the expectation for it to be different yet it somehow feels normal, that is what defines what Supernormal is about. Supernormal is something that is designed with an essence of normality that we share in our memory. In other words, Supernomal is something new but it has familiarity from the beginning. Becoming normal is something that happens and it is not something we can make happen.
What everyday object or experience do you find frustrating or otherwise user-unfriendly, and how might design come into play?
NF: Products that we select to use after all, regardless of their recognition, are good design products.
Products that give no bad impression when we are using them are good products. For example, let's say you have ten good-looking design chairs at home but when you use these chairs everyday, you end up sitting only on those which are comfortable. This natural selection of chairs is the acceptance of design.
JFS: There are so many opportunities for design to make a positive impact upon our lives. For example, my family, friends, colleagues and I travel a lot—our phones could help us be more considerate of each other's context—they'd be able to let us know the time and place where we're about to place a call.
I see a gigantic opportunity to improve the quality of life for billions of people today and in the future, an important everyday experience albeit once in a lifetime, is of design for dignified dying. The mismatch between what people hope for themselves and their loved ones is stark—most people want peaceful time to die at home with their family in attendance. But nowadays, in wealthy and developed countries, most people die after intense and costly interventions aimed at keeping them alive, in a hospital, and with medical staff in attendance. I believe we can design better places, processes, rituals, roles, mindset, metaphors, organizations and business models that enhance the human experience of leaving life. Accepting the fact of our inevitable demise and designing deliberately to improve the quality of that experience, rather than fight and dread it. How might design support our final years, months, days, hours and minutes of life so that we leave our friends and loved ones with human grace.
I was recently rereading Don Norman's essay on the relationship between culture and product design, in which he explores the advantages and disadvantages of globalization and mass-produced design. As well-traveled (and internationally renowned) designers and astute observers of the relationship between objects and how they are used, I'd like to pose Don's question to you: "Does culture matter for product design?"
JFS: Culture definitely matters. Product design is a result and a progenitor of culture and I hope we'll continue to stoke this dynamic tension! The key will be for us to stay curious, observant, and respectful of the rich detail in people's daily lives and craft traditions across diverse cultures.
Design processes, and sensibilities differ—from the highly-refined, minimalist, sweat-the-details perfection of the European and Japanese tradition to a rich, exuberant, ingenious make-do-and-get-by approach of, say, Indian and Malaysian craft traditions.
Photo by Julian Bleecker via Flickr Thoughtless Acts photostream
As for the products themselves, there are definitely commonalities in our lives as human beings worldwide, and much to enjoy about a global culture with certain ubiquitous technologies and tools. At the same time, each of us is connected with one or more local cultures too, with distinct languages, symbols, habits, rituals, meanings and traditions, and we broadly take as much delight in those differences as we do in commonalities. So, not only do ubiquitous products have different significance and use in these different cultures (iPhone used as a shared resource in some communities, or the Honda Civic as an individual's "pimped ride," an economy car or shared transportation for the extended family)—some products and brands have particular appeal because of their cultural heritage and provenance (Hattori Japanese knives, Wedgwood English teapots, Havaianas Brazilian flip-flops, Iittala Finnish glassware). Such brands use design to deliberately maintain cultural references—selecting specific materials, manufacturing processes and packaging as well as particular formal qualities of the product itself—because of the inherent value that affords in a global marketplace.
NF: I think things such as culture and branding are like seasoning to a soup stock with a good body. With globalization, the world is now sharing a good soup stock, but the seasonings or spices that are added locally are very different in each place. While design is related to our body as the fundamental base, seasonings and spices define localities and their cultures. Perhaps their tastes are necessary for the local lifestyle and thus they become local cultures. There are things that are globally shared and also things that need to be adapted to localities.
What excites you about the future of design?
NF: Design is about giving optimum solutions for given situations. What is optimum for things that request design to solve certain problems and what is optimum for emotional design values have different nuances. I wonder whether people decide what is good and bad truly from their heart or people sense those things through their body. Both answers should be the same but most people sense that their heart and body are separate. I think what is honest to our body is good and such things satisfy our heart.
We have to be careful with the word "Exciting" for design in certain senses. Stimulation in design may sounds valuable for a while but people will get tired of it very soon after.
JFS: One aspect is simply the breadth and scale of opportunities for design and designers, as businesses and governments are truly waking up to the idea that design—human creativity—is how we'll ensure the future world is one we want to live in. And, as we realize the systemic nature of pressing problems such as providing equitable access to healthcare, education, water and shelter, and realize the unintended environmental and social consequences of many design decisions—the interconnectedness of everything—design is beginning to find new models and metaphors, new materials and mechanisms to help. These take us beyond purely human technologies and towards technologies in nature, biology, and life-science to inspire the creation of more elegant, sustainable, benign and beautiful solutions.
What scares or intimidates you about the future of design?
JFS: Not much. I don't think design and fear mix well! Designers' imaginations thrive on curiosity about the day-to-day realities of the world we live in. If we keep encouraging exploration and broad awareness I think we'll find that, in the same way that observation of human culture inspires design that works for people, observation of nature's behavior will inspire design that works for all living things.
NF: The fact that anyone can easily design things. Developments for 3D printer and PCs provide unprecedented freedom for expression. It can be beneficial for certain areas that require such technologies but on the other hand it is true that it is likely to produce a mixture of wheat and chaff.
Creation and design shall start from asking ourselves whether is essential to have this particular product for our life.
Creation and design should not be mediums to draw personal eager and wishes.