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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, 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 shaving, aspirin, and multi-colored 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 predetermined?

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.


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