As a reviewer for Core77, the task of locating appropriate books on product and process invariably leads to scouring shelves labeled anything but product design. Coffee table monoliths on designed objects wind up in shelves devoted to architecture, to home decor, to style, to business, or to graphic design. Finding an actual product design glossy in a typical bookstore is about as remarkable as locating a Jethro Tull album that had been filed under "T" in the jazz section of Walmart. Perhaps this is a zeitgeist moment for product design now that Gary Hustwit has released an entire movie about product design in the same month that Metropolis Magazine devotes a whole issue to our profession, so it seemed worthwhile for the book column to sample a text of the monthly variety.
I'm not sure if the recent real estate collapse will dampen the enthusiasm for glossy architecture periodicals, but I'm thrilled that "The Magazine of Architecture and Design" has unabashedly devoted an entire issue to the latter. Setting aside for the moment the paradox between the very green essays and the very shiny advertisements, the columns and articles inside provide a broad sampling of up-to-the-moment thinking on product design, be it "The Product of No Product" as described by John Hockenberry or the sarcasm of Bruce Sterling, who advises struggling designers to ask themselves "what would Maurizio Cattelan do," for which a very literal answer might be -- sculpt an ostrich with its head in the sand. Apologies to Mr. Sterling, but that doesn't quite seem to be the sort of answer readers might be hoping for, since there are many other stronger cases within.
The best essays, like Mr. Hockenberry's, address the modern problem of plenty head on. Addressing the not-so-hypothetical scenario that the consumer no longer aspires to buy, he is forced to acknowledge that "there is, as yet, no coherent response (desperate, absurd, or otherwise) to a global decline in the demand for consumer goods." Sadly, that answer appears to be the truth. Against that backdrop, strong essays like Deyan Sudjic's careful contrasting of cult-of-personality designers like Raymond Loewy and Philippe Starck with functionalists like Dieter Rams lose some of their teeth. Even features like Peter Hall's thoughtful dissection of product design history and Donald Norman's analysis of the emotional connections forged by digital devices are haunted by the same ghost. What criteria can be applied to "green" product design when the greenest product is Hockenberry's "Product of No Product?"
It remains as easy to criticize planned obsolescence in as it is to complement the newest material saving innovation, but the design process is one of compromise. Since even MIO needs to have manufacturing done in China to get eco products into Target and Metropolis's measured design content only exists as supported by pricey home furnishing advertisements, the reader is left with no clear answer to how post-consumer manufacturing will work. That said, Suzanne LaBarre's "A Call to Arms" about state-of-the-art prosthetics, Ken Shulman's "Products for a New Age" about user-friendly IV drip connections and Kristi Cameron's "Updating a Workhorse" about an improved Braille typewriter, provide a strong case for what Metropolis categorizes as "good" design (accessible, functional, well-made and more). Designs like that make it obvious that "no product" isn't a solution either. Even if their carbon footprints aren't pristine, those projects get us back to the reason man picked up tools in the first place: to improve the human condition.