Is 'Good Design' an asphyxiating dogma?
Design is a peculiar activity: It's a creative process, but a process that subscribes to and reinforces certain restrictive attitudes. It can be rigid and self-policing, since a profession that earns its living by discerning what is good and bad must necessarily become judgmental. Ultimately this judgmental nature creates and enshrines certain points of view, which left unchallenged, become dogma. Today, one could argue that this dogma, generally predicated on longstanding ideas of 'rightness' and 'beauty' is choking the profession down, and worse yet, stifling its creativity as it faces some truly great problemsproblems which if handled with new thinking and true creativity, will define the substance, practice and contribution of a generation of designers.
Embracing the word "ugly"so readily identified with everything popular design claims to have been a reaction againstseems a logical choice if we are to create a vision for the practice of design freed from the restrictions and prejudices of its past.
Pretty: Right priced beauty
But wait. Truth and beauty are good things, right? Not necessarily. Design's traditional preference on establishing 'order' has had the consequence of driving a collateral and unchecked pursuit of beauty. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, of course, and as such is subject to the vagaries of cultural bias and popular opinion. By degrees this pursuit of beauty has gradually been replaced with the much more predictable and less admirable accomplishment of achieving 'pretty'. And while consumer culture, planned obsolesce and design culture in general have benefited soundly from the creation, production and documentation of pretty thingsthe pursuit of pretty hasn't pushed the discipline of design into the tighter, less comfortable and ultimately more rigorous inquiries that outside forces (sustainability for example) are aligning to demand of us.
How might product designers better position the discipline to take on the hairy problems of sustainability, economic uncertainty, global competition and the like? Well, one thing is for certain, simply co-opting present patterns of consumption into activities and services linked to conservation won't get us there. That path might work if the world population of 6.5 billion was to stay fixed, but with an additional 3 billion consumers arriving to the party by 2050 we'll need to find more expedient (read: more creative) solutions.
Tjep's 'XXL Chair' and Front Design's 'Sketch Furniture'
PrettyUGLY: The case for 'UGLY' thinking in popular design
Whether attributable to a crisis of faith or economic malaise, High Design's recent fascination with the aesthetics of the unorthodox has given rise to some of the freshest design proposals of recent memory. It's too early to tell whether these musings signal a genuine turning point in the evolution of design, but the newfound acceptance of UGLY as a legitimate voice in design sets the stage for some interesting possibilities at a time when the profession faces deep challenges.
Longtime anathema of design circles, I'd like to suggest that design capitalize on UGLY's present arrival on the scene to boldly re-imagine itself and its future. Appropriating UGLY affords a latitude that would serve to liberate design and design thinking, expediting the introduction of new voices and ideas that might stimulate and revitalize the practice of design. Embracing a word so readily identified with everything popular design claims to have been a reaction against seems a logical choice if we are to create a vision for the practice of design freed from the restrictions and prejudices of its past. UGLY thinking: Where do we look for it?
There are three contemporary developments I believe are already starting to re-characterize design; three developments that when mingled with the liberating effects of thinking UGLY offer potential insights on the future practice and content of design. These developments are: the impact of Computational Culture on design, lessons of Centralized and Decentralized Structures, and the implications of DIY/Hack Culture for product design.
Top: Rapid Prototyped Graffiti by Yale Wolf. Left: 'Cinderella Table' designed by Jeroen Verhoeven for Demakersvan, The Netherlands. Right: 'Type&Form' by Karsten Schmidt for Print Magazine's August 2008 issue.
That the computer and its attendant culture are influencing design is clear. Less clear and certainly less often considered is the specific manner in which the computer is mutating the practice of design itself. Fueled by the power of algorithms, computation culture is radically democratizing and retooling how we execute design. In the visual domains of rule-based systems, dynamic graphics and algorithmic art, new aesthetic vernaculars are being forged. On the process front, the computer's penchant for iteration is formally migrating a generation away from the idea of 'a solution' to the notion of 'a range of' solutions. In so far as these tools anticipate not one but several potential solutions, they are cementing into design the power of the 'happy accident'.
Similarly, the relative ease and economy with which the computer permits us to blend, splice, and mix across source material enhances design's natural inclination to branch and sub-branch into multiple lines of inquiry. In that so much design happens inside the act of iterating and refining, computational culture is empowering the single greatest domain of design: the process itself, or more specifically the 'flow' of the design process. It permits us to slowly relinquish our firm clench on aesthetic expectation, let go of our visual prejudices, and 'give in' to what the process offers up.
'Stacheln' from Shapeways. This Netherlands based company allows users to customize design from its online database.
Computational culture is also changing design by breaking down long-standing barriers to fabrication and distribution. Rapid prototyping services such as ZapFab, FirstCut and Shapeways offer professionals and non-professionals alike the tools necessary to execute and disseminate their work. Accelerating the situation, an ecosystem of sites like Ponoko and Etsy stand ready to provide these 'blackmarket' results a very real pipeline to consumers. The relatively low barrier of access to these tools in terms of cost and resources means that larger numbers are now able to bring their specific needs and ideas into discussion alongside formal design (aka big D design). While there is no guarantee that the increase in participants will elevate the quality of design work, it does suggest that the small and relatively exclusive core of design culture will be increasingly confronted with new and divergent points of view. And that's a good thing.
Failure to appreciate DIY/Hack Culture is to risk having professional design become as irrelevant to the contemporary landscape as record labels and network television are in the age of iTunes and YouTube.
Centralized and Decentralized Structures
The lessons of Centralized and Decentralized Structures are important to design's future because they bring into discussion the interrelated concepts of platforms and systemsconcepts which are essential to the future practice of product design because they invite us to think holistically.
One consequence of computational culture has been to deliver us a shared mental model of the web and an accompanying appreciation for the merits of networked systems. This common understanding is important because it equips all of usconsumers and designers alikewith a scaled model for the forces at work in the environment at large. The forces at work in the node/web dynamic are important because they mirror the forces at work in local/global relationships. In both cases the strengths and weaknesses of networked systems become readily apparent. A virus introduced to a network can start at one node and threaten the health of the entire system. Similarly, pollutants generated in China can cross the pacific and rain down on the western seaboard of North America. Or (borrowing from today's headlines) an economic system built on credit can be felled by the introduction of one flawed instrument: mortgage backed securities, for example. In both models nothing exists in a vacuum; for every action there is a reaction somewhere, sometime, someplace.
The lessons for designers of centralized and decentralized structures aren't just in regard to sustainability and global credit; they also lie in the insights they offer into models of manufacturing and distribution, of resource management and economic compensation. Kiva's Microloans, Zipcar's shared vehicles, Netflix's mega-management of DVDs and a host of emerging service models succeed because of the way in which they leverage the power embedded in networked structures. That the power of these systems is intimately wed to their fragility is a critical lesson for product design as it attempts to address increasingly interconnected problems. As designers we flatter ourselves when we forgo understanding the context of our design efforts or when we lend our professional talents to producing thoughtless iterations of old ideas. Thinking within systems will force us to operate in more responsible ways; to consider both agreeable (easy) and disagreeable (hard) factors as we work to gain understanding of a problem. Mainstreaming resolution of design problems across such contradictory filters is essential if we are to evolve as a profession and as a practice.
DIY/Hack Culture: Voices of the Amateur
DIY/Hack Culture yields its lessons to design through evolving notions of popular aesthetics and consumer behavior. Informing these movements is a dramatic change in the consumer's stance relative to product: a shift from a 'read-only' model of consumption to a 'read-write' model of consumption. The participatory relationship between user and product has always been implicit; what is new is the degree to which consumers can now modulate the performance of products once thought too complex to be modifiable. Like 2x4s in a lumberyard, an emerging generation of consumers sees the shipped product as little more than a jumping off point for solutions that better support their own specific needs, tastes and whims. So much for the voice of the consumer; say hello to the will of the consumer.
The elevation of hack culture from a subversive activity to a pedestrian preoccupation also casts a light on changing notions of propriety. Websites such as LifeHacker, ThinkGeek and Inventables routinely categorize and publish burgeoning catalogs of top hacks. Reviewing these sites frequently, one can catch a glimpse of a new species of product design emerging. Alice Wang's Tyrant alarm which drunk dials your friends if you refuse to turn it off, or ThinkGeek's SnuZnLuz, which threatens to donate your money to the GOP offer up something truly new in consumer electronics: product with a soul layered atop its physical design and functional OS.
ThinkGeek's 'SnuzNLuz' and Alice Wang's 'Tyrant' alarm.
DIY/Hack Culture is also significant because it starts to break down the neat partitions between consumer and fabricator upon which contemporary product design has found its present place as arbitrator. Regardless of your position on amateur culture, it is clear that formal design will need to reevaluate its positioning if it is to continue to act as mediator between these converging groups. Failure to do so is to risk having professional design become as irrelevant to the contemporary landscape as record labels and network television are in the age of iTunes and YouTube. In a marketplace where designer, manufacturer and consumer finally meet on an equitable plane, the tools of specialization we've inherited will need to be rethought. If product evolves to accommodate the consumer's ultimate modification and final purposing of the object, what is the design process that supports this new definition of product?
How might product designers better position the discipline to take on the hairy problems of sustainability, economic uncertainty, global competition and the like? Well, one thing is for certain, simply co-opting present patterns of consumption into activities and services linked to conservation won't get us there.
What does it all mean?
Design has long been about solving problems. Today the problems we face are in part problems created by our own professional activity. In such a climate, continued reliance on the practices and behaviors that led us here just won't do. New solutions need to be found. New practices identified. Let's take a look at what an UGLY methodology might look like:
General assumptions of UGLY:
- Question existing assumptions (i.e. is beauty intrinsically admirable?).
- Utilize intellect as well as intuition; temper your muscle memory with intellectual rigor.
- Don't rely on what you can anticipate; believe in the creative power of experimentation.
- Change: expect it, embrace it, understand it, leverage it.
- Sustainability: stop segregating it into a class of problems separate than the one you are currently working on.
Process notes for UGLY:
- Iterate Iterate Iterate: work to get it right, respect the resources required to execute your solution.
- Cut/Paste/Slice. Don't get locked in, draw upon sources from outside of your core discipline.
- Move in, out and across mediums frequently. The change in perspective will serve you and your ideas, forcing connections that might otherwise remain hidden.
- Be prepared to walk away from the problem you are tackling, but come back.
Behaviors of UGLY:
- Don't know, Do. Invest the time to vet out your ideas and assumptions.
- Listen to those you don't agree with, you'll learn more.
- Try things that scare you, you'll grow and your tool kit will as well.
- Co-opt an opposing point of view: live in the skin of another viewpoint.
- Disagree early and frequently, the debate will add depth to your solutions.
UGLY is about fundamentally recognizing the role 'popular' design has played in creating the culture of disposable consumption. UGLY seeks to utilize design's unique position as co-conspirator and change agent to help evolve a practice of consumer design that goes beyond stylistic achievement in its effort to seek out new techniques and processes that can progress the profession toward an offering better aligned with contemporary problems. While UGLY finds its name in a word seemingly at odds with aesthetic achievement, it does not reject aesthetic achievement. UGLY rejects aesthetic achievement only when it is arrived at to the exclusion or disregard of contemporary factors such as environmental impact, excessive cost or redundancy of purpose. If classic design of the post-war period arose as a response to a world without order, can there be any better chance for our profession then to adopt a new set of ideas in the face of world comprised of too much order, too much corporate influence, and an increasingly borderless consumer culture? I doubt it.
Tadeo Toulis is Creative Director of the Product Studio at Teague in Seattle Washington. Prior to joining Teague, Toulis worked at Lunar Design, Motorola's Advanced Concepts Group and Samsung's LA LAB. Toulis was also a founding member of designRAW a San Francisco based design collective.
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