Something for Nothing?
by Allan Chochinov
You can define design and designers according to many useful,
if clichéd dicta: Design is the beautiful marriage of form and function;
Designers are problem solvers; Design is a dialogue with culture. But these days,
with the popular mood on the downswing, the media rubbing it in, and a heightened
sense that design is the central protagonist standing at the footlights of the
various leading stories of the day (shuttle foam, bunker blasters, pyrotechnical
flares, gene sequencing), it seems more and more arguable that design, for whatever
else it may claim to be, is a zero-sum game: that there is a fixed amount of value
in the universe, and that if design's mission is to bring into being a winner,
it also, necessarily, brings into being a loser.
Let me flesh this out a bit. Design is a profession of promise; more often than
not, it promises to make things better. It promises prettier, it promises more
useful, more safe, more affordable, more desirable, more marketable. But it could
be argued that almost always, we trade something for all this more.
And actually, we don't "trade" at all. We trade off. The spinning coin
in the air has two sides, and that coin is a blurry, slippery, and often vexing
thing called value.
Let's take a look at a few examples from this past month's New York Times: Scientists
at the Consumer Products Safety Commission revealed that children playing on outdoor
wood playground sets are at increased
risk of bladder and lung cancer from arsenic exposure. (The wood is treated
with a pesticide, known as chromated copper arsenate, to prevent rotting); Televisions
are invading yet another private spot in our lives: taxi cabs, where we will
be forced to endure an onslaught of ads (public service announcements?!) literally
in our face; And finally, this
chilling article suggests blame on the folks who hastily "patched up"
the cracks in the space shuttle insulation--without reporting such repairs--pressured
by their "supervisors" to get the thing out the door.
So what do these three things have in common? Well, design of course. And all
of the balanced equations that these design predicaments write on the wall point
to the kind of tradeoffs that those designers fatefully made, and we designers
continue to make, every day. Is it naive to think that they didn't understand
the implications of their actions? Is it fair to assume that the bargain is unknown
to us? Are the best of intentions enough to insure against disaster?
That's a tough one. Design education is forever acknowledging that any design
problem comes with a set of criteria and constraints. These two players are pitted
against each other, balanced, traded off. The popular triad of time/quality/price
(that you can ever only have two of the three) is a fun parlor trick, but it hardly
takes into account what may be the more accurate either/or paradigm at play: In
design, if you get something, you give something. In design, we are always playing
a zero-sum game. If you want rot-proof play yards, you poison your kids; if you
want remote controls, you sit like a slug on your sofa; if you want cellular phones,
you give up the possibility of ever being unreachable. If you want health care
that comes from your tax dollars, you end up on waiting lists for MRI scans. If
you want an organ transplant, you are at the mercy of clerical errors. If you
want to elect a president, you are at the mercy of graphic design errors. If you
want your baby safely tucked into your minivan, you are at the mercy of information
design errors. (The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that
as many as 50 percent of all infant car seats are installed or used incorrectly.)
Want more? Less time spent cooking gets you more processed foods and poor nutrition;
longer transport windows gets you less flavorful fruits and vegetables; telecommuting
to spend more time with your family gets you unrelenting email. And on, and on,
But is it true that we can never get something for nothing? Is this deal with
the devil really our lot as designers?
Perhaps that's the difference between art and design. An artist creates something,
and the tradeoff is supposed to result in more, from less. For instance, Tom Friedman
uses very little to provoke quite a lot. His pencil
balls sculptures epitomize economy of means, but the deliverable to the viewer
is huge. Or at least it is for some people. The ramifications of his work are
largely cerebral, though I suppose a case could be made that the trickle down
of his endeavors is not so simple (art handlers, critics, insurance companies,
museum cleaning crews, etc.). Still, the big difference between Friedman's work
and an industrial designer's work is mass production. And as soon as you get into
mass production, you get into a bit of trouble. Small mistakes become big mistakes;
small indulgences become big indulgences, and all those small bits and pieces
become very large piles of solid waste. There's a plus side, of course--mass production
can bring great good into the world, but why does the tradeoff always seem so
One reason may be that we're not exactly playing a fair fight. Entropy, the second
law of thermodynamics, dictates that everything necessarily migrates from a more
organized to a less organized state. So if the objective of design is to create
that initial, perfect, organized, designed state--the debut
of the product, as it were--maybe we are inevitably setting the stage for entropic
disarray? In a weird way, we become the first cause, the switch-thrower, pointing
knowingly, necessarily, and rather tragically to the creation of negative potential.
We are doomed for things to go wrong, and a little handcuffed in the arrangement.
Maybe we just don't stand a chance.
But of course, this shouldn't give us license to go hog wild. Social responsibility
and design have always gone together (now there's a beautiful
marriage of function and form!), and keeping a keen eye on the implications of
our choices should be a prerequisite to every move we make. Still, it's not just
the unforeseen or wasteful that we need to be troubled with, 'cause we seem unable
to resist meddling with just about everything. Dolly died, so maybe we got that
one wrong, too.
Allan Chochinov is a New York-based designer and educator.
He is a partner of Core77.