Today the development of products, furniture and lighting is based on important criteria; human experience, social and global issues, economic and political issues, physical and mental interaction, form, imagination, and a rigorous understanding of contemporary culture.
Our experiences are becoming less apparent and products around us have taken on a banality and a certain sameness due to mass-production, lack of R&D funds or interest, low-capital investments, and the great mass mechanization of the 20th century. The result is few ideas and many variations.
Industrial design is in its second abecedarian. Somewhat infantile, limbotic, mis-interpretive, mis-understood and predictable. Today Industrial Design is changing and the role of designers is plagued by either not being necessary in a knock-off marketplace or by being involved only on a surface or "skin" level of objects. Contributing to the development cycle in ameaningful way requires our involvement in the mnemonic stage of development, conceiving ideas and playing a rigorous role at defining the object's value, performance, and intelligible existence. In turn, Industrial Design must become more visible in a world of media so that design is of pedestrian interest and desire rather than a marginal subject. The greater the awareness, the more the need for our participation. Design has attempted to embrace ideas of interaction, man-machine interface, meaning, and language, yet the excess of products that emulate an already exhaustive situation continues at ever increasing speed allowing even less involvement in the development of these products.
The hyper-explosive period of the 21st century is the advent for a critical stance and a celebration of the object and its' interjection to an 'immaterial' infinity. Traditional empoison of design methodology and a globalization of the consumer product brought end to the "modern" language of the object. Yet objects have become endless appropriation of one another, a cloning of clones as we trade spiritual values for material values and originality for simulation.
In the late eighties, while objects, especially furnishings, were in their maturity of the 'High-Design movement' and highly visible we witnessed little discourse on the new ways of informing physical objects. In Industrial Design theory hardly exists Unlike art and architecture, where discussions embracing immateriality, ambiguity, hybridization, post-structuralism, representation, simulacra, phenomenology, feminism, semantics, deconstruction, postmodern condition and tribalism, are commonplace, industrial design theory seldom approaches such subjects. The industrial design rhetoric 'that design is no longer strictly about things or objects' became the controversial arguement. In our newer synthetic world - a world where the departure is the digital phenomena, we are witnessing a de-natured recumbence - that objects are to respond to our emotional and environmental needs as well as sensual, intellectual, AND ever-changing sociual behaviors. Are our social conditions really changing as digitalia seeps its' way into every aspect of our everyday life? That when design fell under the notion that objects really possess meaning, this was a way or rubric as a point of entry into finding new direction in design; a new pedagogy.
"We are up against this contrast between a design utterly void of any meaning - with a glut of forms and functions kept alive by a production sphere plagued with excess"
Maurizio Morgantini - Design educator, Chicago Art Institute
Schools began to concentrate on object as meaning, using simile, representation, metaphors, symbolism and even remote circumstantial narratives to inform objects. Imagery was the worst case. For example in the book 'The meanings of Modern Design' by Peter Dormer, a designer was asked to design a new hair dryer. The designer informed their project with words such as 'wind' or 'air.' In turn, the word air references' birds and the hair dryer form become wing-like inspired from a peacock. I am not sure how 'peacock' entered the discussion. The result is a fan of a different form. Is this the ideology we must engage to find new forms or is there really any need to find new forms, but instead to design projects that consist of existing language? Syntax became the inspiration for form.
Another perfect example are the literal fantasy of objects by Guy Dyas, such as his Vacman Vacuum. The concurrence of such searching, as we saw in many design schools, resulted in a few original results and a morass of objects that had little to do with their respective subject. Generally the syntax of simile produced a new form of embellishment, a way of decorating objects that could never really be explained to the consumer. Sometimes the result is very literal and we end up with objects that border on kitsch. The form follows function discussion -- a banality in itself, is completely irrelevant when it comes to sophisticated products with complex functionality, digital componentry, almost mythological hyper objects that engage little interaction, if any. So how do we shape these objects? Inanimate objects do not have meaning. We project meaning on objects. In the nineties design is the study of the subject that informs the object. Form follows Subject.
The point is that subject is not necessarily necessity driven or an issue of function. Subject may be a philosophical position on contemporary culture, a tenet, or odium on a condition. A subject may be human experience, gathering, behavior, movement, cultural phenomena, media, flexibility, sustainability, variation, reconfigurability, immateriality, materiality, consumption, transparency, digital production, etc. Maybe the subject is exceedingly banal such as "reusing existing tooling' or tooling modification. These issues constitute a language based on dealing with the subject and not the object. This is the First order of design.
The study of Objects can be investigated in the following ways:
TYPOLOGY - Meaningful identities, modes, type, postures, and categories
MORPHOLOGY - Formal articulation spatial boundaries
TOPOLOGY - Spatial order proximity, continuity, organization
CONTEXT or TELEOLOGY - environment, market, dissemination, distribution, and visibility.
Can design transcend its past and become a subject or methodology for commentary or self-expression? Can we expect from product design an actual commentary on culture, on social issues, or a message? Or is design relegated to serving purpose, to fulfill needs only, to create a more comfortable, convenient situation or condition? We realize that commodity is dangerous as it leads to excessive proliferation and hyper consumption. At the same time, objects shape our everyday lives, as we interact with them at every moment. Every object that is placed on the market today it should replace three objects. This is good design.
Old School Industrial Design involved characters such as Arthur Pulos, author of "The Great American Design Adventure". In this text he traces the manufacture of products through the century. He emphasizes the fact that design is subject to the predatory grasp of commerce and repeats that the designer is the humane and aesthetic conscience of industry and surrogate for the consumer. Design has been subordinate to manufacturing since the turn of the century. The machine as the dictator of design has relinquished its position as a mechanical butler for ideas, imagination, experimentation and fantasy. Dieter Rams, Max Bill, Enzo Mari, Giotto Stoppino, Rodolfo Bonetto, Joe Columbo, George Nelson, Charles Eames, Donald Deskey, Achille Castiglioni, are just a few of the Industrial Designers who had very systemic, analytical, hard-core approaches to the development of product. They embraced the issues of performance, efficiency, utility, economy, industry, developing competent solid products. The search for new ways of solving problems seems to be the ideology of the time. Creativity was within the boundaries of production, manufacturing, and tooling. At the same time designers not only were problem solvers (where problem meant utility), with concerns of bettering of human conditions, but a great back-seat emphasis was placed on aesthetic or appearance design. Many products originally designed by engineers needed face lifts or cleaning up of forms, or relying on sacred geometry or style to commodity and market objects. More functional, less ornamental products with little extraneous qualities were developed. Concerns included improving the physical environment, reduction of hand processes, efficiency of manufacturing, shared tooling, modular systems, ease of assembly, shipping requirements, reparability, maintainability, proficiency of process, ease of use, friendly interface, low-cost product by production expediency. All these issues informed the form.
In 1952 The first polyester fiberglass chair to be seen in the low price bracket was manufactured by Hettrick Manufacturing Co. Designed by J.M. Little. In 1953 it was featured in the ID Annual as a chair commended for knock-down ease of shipping, minimal low-cost tooling, and interchangeable legs. Semantic, interface, ergonomic, poetic, emotional, aesthetic, experiential issues were not part of the discussion.
The number of quality products offered for sale today is truly amazing, given the process through which most consumer goods manufacturers produce new lines, totally and thoroughly predicted in previous performance and sales histories, investments in tooling, equipment and habits of engineering and manufacturing. The me-tooism policy of design engineering and marketing is the decline of economic/cultural shaping and the finitum of artistic thinking.
We are amidst a post-industrial age, an age where autonomy, diversity, change, vicissitude, and the moment exist in harmony with technological manifestation. In order to make change in the world one must understand where the world is going and create the change from within a given contemporary condition, not resort to a condition that is misanthropic and historic. The Old school spoke of Industrial Design where industry and technological production worked hand-in-hand, and the machine dictated the limitations of production process. Sotsass said in 1982 that we are entering a time when we control the machine, the machine does not control the outcome. Albeit the machine still has great limitations; yet one need not focus on limitations, but on possibilities and opportunities.
Few designers embrace technological process. Its almost to the point where designers are acting as naive artisans who want to 'self express' regardless of manufacturing. If Designers and manufacturers continue to bifurcate then industrial design will become even less significant as a relative profession. The process of design is to develop very intelligent solutions with new ideas to manifest our objects of our milieu. If we can embrace the Old School concerns of total engagement in production and industry we produce responsible objects. If we can achieve the newer issues of responding to the subject at hand and develop highly experiential, communicative, interactive but poetic works, then good design can exist respectfully, visibly and effectively in our commodity landscape.
Karim Rashid is an Industrial Designer and Cultural Engineer with a design office in New York City and is an Assistant Professor at The University of the Arts, Philadelphia