Why does Design so often struggle to communicate its value to the world, when it's something we all recognize?
When we speak of product development, we frequently look at the domains of Design and Engineering separately, evaluating them in different ways. Engineering, at its core, is a measurable process; Design, for the most part, is not. This gives the former an inherent advantage: engineering efforts are easily quantifiable, and this provides them with authority. Design is intuitive, working on the non-verbal levels of our experience, sometimes triggering our most subversive emotional states; this makes it difficult to evaluate empirically. Lacking an analytical vernacular, Design is labeled subjective, when it is actually the agent of universal truth through form.
For the consumer, it's easy to forget how much the emotional response to an object determines his or her relationship to it, but this forgetfulness can be plausibly explained by the dominant role our analytical mind plays in formulating language. Because it is able to say it's in charge, as the executor of structured argument, the analytical mind generally convinces us that it is in fact the authority. Reasoning therefore holds higher status, and emotional reactions are easy to dismiss as immature or irrational. This poses a very real barrier to the acceptance of design as a source of value in product development; enough that it's worth examining alternate ways of evaluating design, transcending this subjective view to create a more universal system of measure.
Form has meaning; it can touch us at such a primal level that our mind is left scrambling to rationalize our emotional reactions. Consider the visceral impression conveyed by a natural setting: The deep serenity felt, for example, while walking through a majestic grove of redwoods. The delicate lace of fern fronds wave as you drag your hand through them as you walk, and your heart jumps into your throat when startled by a deer caught wondering across the trail. These natural forms hold an innate meaning that not only transcends the human experience, but even predates our verbal expression, definition, and measurement. In other words, we did not create this meaning; it comes from the forms themselves, and existed long before we did.
What Surface Continuity is Quietly Telling Us
For the purpose of this argument I propose that form (or Design), in the context of both the natural and man-made world has two jobs: to be the messenger of a certain experience; and to fulfill on that promise. When the two don't match up, the experience is unfulfilling and its form superficial. Consider the agreement between message and experience in these examples from nature:
- The vibrant color and markings of the poison dart frog warns off predators with the promise of death; fulfillment here is clear.
- The Monarch Butterfly's colorful markings also flaunt its poisonous nature; their purpose is attained when predators are deterred.
- The consequences of interacting with the array of sharp spines on a sea urchin or porcupine are pretty obvious to any creature passing by--you don't need a pair of frontal lobes to understand this.
- The glorious display of the peacock's plumage carries the clear message, 'my DNA is better than the next guy's, so mate with me'.
- The elegant complexity of sexual reproduction in flowering plants is one small indicator of co-evolutionary ecologies, one of the most awe-inspiring truths in the natural world.
- Even the sinister bio-mimicry of the Preying Mantis, luring unsuspecting pollinators to their death, has a beautiful symmetry to it.
These mutually arising, mutually "designing" attributes of nature tell a story of the effect of form on life itself, which predates the defining nature of our verbal language. In our language-based society though, it is the power of visual design and subsequent eloquence of non-verbal communication can easily escape us.
If there is an empirical meaning behind form then, how does it manifest across the natural and into the man-made world? Going further with this notion, let's deconstruct the meaning of form naturally, and then distill that meaning into some simplified geometric categories technically. In order to define these categories, I will ironically employ a three-level definition of surface continuity from the engineering CAD lexicon: Positional, Tangential, and Curvature continuities.
It's useful to think of these three types as steps in a ladder, with each building on the definition of the last. Positional continuity [C0 or G0] refers to the hard edge created when 2 surfaces intersect. Tangential continuity [C1 or G1] is the next level, defined by a circular arc creating a relatively smooth transition between these surfaces. The quality of this transition is best visualized by a straight line drawn between two circles: the line's only point of contact with each circle is tangential. This level of continuity is often described as a basic fillet in most solid modeling systems. Although smooth, there is a characteristic "break line" of tangency denoting where the circle meets the line.
Curvature continuity [C2 or G2] is a bit trickier to describe. Technically, it occurs when the rate of curvature between 2 continuous surfaces are the same. Visually, it is when one cannot tell when one surface ends and another begins. In the CAD world this is often referred to as class A surfacing, and is the domain of surface-based modeling software like Alias, Rhino, and Catia. The primary benefit of Curvature's quality is the ability to control smooth reflections across multiple surfaces, generating the elegant sculptural results necessary in the automotive industry. The technical renderings below illustrate these visual qualities better than any verbal description could. Please pay attention to the subtle differences, particularly the Tangential line marking the fillet's point of contact with its adjacent surface, and how the reflections break there as well.
Looking at the diversity of nature yields numerous examples of both Positional and Curvature continuity: from the sharp edges of crystal formations, the jagged fans of palm trees, and the serrated scales of thorny lizards; to the aqua-dynamic skin of a dolphin, the flowing shapes of sedimentary sandstone, and the graceful curves of a flower petal. Examining our emotional responses to these two classes of natural form development, there are distinct sets of impressions they leave upon us:
The Positional forms suggest precision, accuracy, danger, structure, fidelity...
The Curvature surfaces intimate sophistication, elegance, fluidity, grace, refinement...
Conspicuous is the nearly complete absence of tangential forms in nature.
Meaning and the Man-Made Formscape
Now taking this same simplified approach to the categorization of man-made forms, especially transportation machinery, we can see similar patterns of meaning arise. The Stealth Fighter and the Cadillac show-car both have a menacing and precise nature. The D-type Jaguar and the B-1 Bomber hold an alluring yet somber elegance.
Newer to this form-scape are the Tangential forms, and notably they have a very particular and consistent point of view: they all maintain a sense of utility, function, efficiency, practicality, purpose... The design language of these SUVs epitomized the notion of purposefulness, even when comparing the utilitarian nature of the original Land Rover with its glitzy new cousin the LR3 Discovery. Remarkable is the same functional character of the CV 22 Osprey; one would think that the laws of aerodynamic would solely determine this airplane's shape--no industrial design team sketched up this form language--yet one can plainly see the utilitarian message of this vehicle expressed in its form.
Stepping into the terrain of product design, we see a different distribution of this continuity landscape. On the Positional end of the spectrum, we again have products of precision and fidelity. On the other end we have C2 objects of elegance and sophistication. And clumped on top of each other in the middle are the majority of Tangential consumer products.
Now here's the rub: How many of these are appropriately utilizing the form language of utility and how many are not? How many are tangentially sculpted because of the tools of creation (tangent-restricted solid modeling software)? How many are consciously designed to produce a relevant user experience? The DeWalt drill of course is right on the mark, the Emeco Navy Chair absolutely shouts utility, and all of the Dyson vacuums are Tangent porn as far as I can tell--functional engineering taken to a styled perversity--but it is the hoards of cell phones, MP3 players, computers, and multitudes of consumer electronics that lack much distinction or differentiation from each other. There is a profound laziness to the execution of these products, especially when compared to the beauty of diversity found in nature. You could easily argue that a majority of products are primarily tools of purpose, and thus Tangent is their true form language. Unfortunately, too many products are unconsciously executed with the engineering tools at hand, instead of looking for the nuanced and subtle differences that would make them worthy of the space they take up on the shelves of our consumer market place.
Now, understandably many of these products are not so much Designed as driven by engineering requirements, cost, and short timelines. They were created, but without Design in mind. Functions and features most likely dominated the development process rather than ease of use and quality of experience. I would venture again that the user was not really put at the forefront because it is not ease to measure their experience, thus the "rational" mindset ends up driving development by functionality alone because it is simple to quantify. Also much of the "piling up" of Tangentially formed products today is directly proportional to the tools (solid modeling software) that designers and engineers are using to conceive and implement ideas. So development tools and marketing features are dictating customer experiences instead of the other way around.
Remember that the Tangent category does not exist in nature in pure form: it is a mental construction from man's imagination; an abstraction of functional form designed to simplify the task of product development. Predating CAD, this geometric linear- and arc-based approach evolved out of the mental constructs of design technique, industrial fabrication, and reproduction of the objects of the 20th Century. It was the root of the Bauhaus ideal: the single language of "form following function." And while I have a deep affection for the pragmatism embodied in that phrase, I find it too limiting. It just doesn't hold universal truth, rooted as it is, exclusively in the world of measurement.
The Periodic Table of Form
Is Design merely inspiration's anatomy without reason or rationale, or is this rooted in some universal truth? Can we apply a scientific method of measure, and give order to form's relationship with meaning? While struggling to come up with some concrete examples to these questions, the team at Alchemy Labs decided to "make" some generic widgets to illustrate our collective thoughts on this matter.
We started with a deceivingly functional form: a simple shape that, to fool the viewer's eye, looked like it did something, but in fact has no function at all. Then we applied the three categories of continuity to form a baseline structure. Then, in Darwinian fashion, we cross-pollinated these central forms to create hybridized form statements. The result is the beginning of a kind of Periodical Chart of Forms that can be parsed for their associated Meanings. Like the Periodic Table of the Elements, this system holds ample opportunity for mixing proportions, creating alloys, and adding impurities. We propose that this visual paradigm has room to house all the things that have been, and the things yet to be.
Once established, we can test the paradigm with some concrete samples, validating it through blending the 3 levels and then deconstruct their complex hierarchical meaning.
We start with the F-22 Raptor, the newest fighter in the US Air Force arsenal. This jet's integration of stealth technology and slippery aerodynamics is faithfully expressed in its contrasting angular Positional silhouette and graceful Curvature control surfaces. The blending of these two continuity levels produces a sophisticated, exacting, and formidable visual specter.
Like the F-22, the Lamborghini Reventon is a fusion of Positional and Curvature form development, but its origami-like folding of sleek surfaces signies a threatening yet exotic precision; a technological sex appeal that cuts both ways.
Apple's PowerBook represents the other end of the spectrum: large friendly radii and Bauhaus minimalism, these transitions are deceptively sweetened with the subtle Curvature quality fillets. The result is a Design language that says, "I'm simple to use, thoughtful, and sophisticated." Apple's excruciating attention to this level of detail is at the heart of this brand's customer experience and behind their consumer cult loyalty; their commitment to crafting this experience says simply that they care more about their consumer than their competition.
How has Apple's design language evolved with the introduction of the new MacBook Pro? Again the first layer is minimalistic Tangency with the intrusion of Curvature transition quality, but this latest version brings in Positional "bone lines." These additional cutting features evolve Apple's sophisticated ease of use into a more "mature" precision design statement. This echoes from its new high-fidelity machined chassis, representing the most exacting manufacturing process of any laptop made today. It's interesting to see these two products side by side, the 2001 PowerBook now seems a bit simplistic in comparison to the 2008 MacBook Pro.
No matter how much our mind wants to control the conversation, we will miss out on at least half of the story if we don't recognize and honor our emotional side of our being. Product development needs to take a more harmonizing approach, through a more seasoned awareness of our true nature and a deeper look into creation, assessment, and valuation of both our mental and emotional bodies.
The Periodic Table of Form & Meaning is an attempt to address certain goals: to create a model of empirical understanding for three dimensional form, to start defining Design's intangible traits, to measure its emotional meaning in such form, and to make conscious some of our unconscious choices. We need to embrace the completeness of the being of form, by more consciously and thoroughly understanding it, and not focus merely on only the consciously measured half of the story. This simple yet open structure hopes to create a dialogue between the heart and mind, in form in particular, but in ourselves primarily (by the necessity of our task). Thus, we can make a case for Design's true value, and petition our ruling rational thought processes to loosen their grip: to allow us to stop and smell the truth of beauty, and the beauty in truth.
*Gray Holland is the principal and founder of Alchemy Labs, a full spectrum design firm in San Francisco. We approach Design, Brand, and Business as a synthesis--transforming new ideas into reality. Thanks to the entire team at Alchemy Labs, and special thanks and support to Laura McFarland.
**Cited are the Creative Commons usage of the many images used in this article found through Google image searches over the past 5-6 years. Most of the images I am unable to attribute with any accuracy (with the exception of the Apple images - www.apple.com/macbookpro ).
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As designers we should always consider meaning through form, but it should be targeted on a cultural level - not only using 'universal' signs that perhaps don't mean anything to our consumers. Find out about the cultural world of your target group and try to design for them to find meaning in your design.
Thanks for your perspective as a veteran design educator. I have also witnessed the same thing firsthand. Especially when learning CAD for the first time, students are intimidated and will design things that they can build easily in CAD. I studied industrial design in the mid 90's and it was fascinating to me the different focusses that students had on the design education and profession. For some it was all about hand rendering skills and how beautifully they could present an idea. In some cases, the presentation became more imortant than the idea. For others it was model making. They spent their hours in the shop and photo studio. Some wanted to be hands on so bad that they eventually became machinists. Others were seduced by CAD and spent hours rendering and adjusting lighting...etc. Some of them went into fields like animation and web design. Then there were the closet artists who really wanted to be in the fine arts program but didn;t believe thewy coudl make a livign at art. All of the skills come in handy as a designer. Sexy CAD renderings do grab attention of clients though. It still seems like magic to someone who has no clue about CAD. CAD is obviously here to stay. We just need it to catch up to our hands and minds so that we can focus on ideas and forms and less on CAD commands and data processing. One time my boss had his 15 year old son come in to see what a designer does for work. I showed him some things that I had done in CAD. And he asked my how do I design. I said "Like this" and I took a pencil and started sketching. He said: "No I mean like uh how do you design on the computer". I told him "I don't. I design with this (pencil). I only record my designs on the computer so I can show them to other people without wasting paper." Then I showed him how to make a surface and a loft and some other 3D stuff and naturally he was dazzeled.
Download the full-size Periodic Table of Form link doesn't work...
If Gehry can keep cranking our amorphous shapes digitized by his staff then Gaudi would have a field day. Today he would be spending more time imagining and less time executing. (although I doubt he would ever turn control over completely to the CAD folks.) The point is that today it should be easier than ever to make Gaudi-esque forms. We can digitize anything today, even Shrek. Yet the proliferation of the glass box as architecture continues. Why? Because it's cheap, easy and yes, a bit lazy. Economy of form also means economy of effort.
Say what you want about Frank Ghery's buildings but you can not ignore them. Each one has been drawn and detailed in CAD - eventually. They didn't start in CAD. I would argue that the forms of Mr. Ghery's buildings would be quite different had he started designing them in CAD rather with hand drawn gesture sketches. I wish the new Beetle designers had spent a little more time sculpting clay before they started CADing.
As any instrument, it carries limitations and possibilities. Working with shapes in morphology, by hand, by cad and mixing them is an interesting opportunity of our times. And I don't think it is a sequence, the order is not linear but that complex order of our design thinking. The issue is HOW we use these media.
Going back to the article, the tangential continuity refers only to uniform fillets and continuity of curvature refers to blends. There is an interesting intermediate position in not uniform fillets. How would they enter this association to meaning? In continuity of curvature you consider two surfaces that you will join uniformly. When you use not uniform fillets you design the shape of the surface that will connect them.
Sorry if there are some inappropriate english expressions. English is not my native language.
As for the article, the point is valid if not obvious that tangential relationships don't exist in nature and are less interesting. If you boil it down further, tangential relationships require straight lines which are figments of our imagination and don't occur in nature. Aesthetically speaking, tangential design communicates functionality and efficiency and defintiely has it's place. Used in the right context, that can be very effective. The author suggests that tangential relationships are overused and used in the wrong context due to designers being lazy and doing whatever is easiest to input into CAD. I tend to agree with that argument although the laziness predates CAD.
Perhaps it's time to admit that the Bauhaus was more than a just quest for purity of form. It was also letting designers and architects off the hook, making their jobs easier. Design a few boxes, get paid, go home and kick you feet up in a Breuer chair. Not so bad. (Especially since the leather is anything but rigid - but I digress.) The unfortunate legacy is indistinguishable cities filled with indistinguishable mirrored prisms filled with cookie cutter tenants serving overpriced coffee to the complacent masses. How far we've come. Where have you gone Antoni Gaudi?
Your form/surface evolution breakdown and wordy argument seem more of an over-analyzed Rube Goldberg device (without the entertainment value) and a confession to your adoration of Macs. Buried here is an attempt to persuade a deeper understanding and goal to define the intangible value of design which is commendable. However, this is exactly the type of superfluous essay that perpetuates design to many people and other essential commercial disciplines as too self-important, elite, and aloof.
Although engineering is mathematically based (linear versus non-linear thinking), it's not necessarily a measurable process in terms of value either. In fact, I've always had a profound appreciation for the intellect applied to the function and production of everyday products that is never seen, felt, or advertised. We simply take it for granted.
The artistic / aesthetic aspect of design you refer to is labeled subjective because it is the universal truth not the agent of truth through form as you suggest. It is part of the human condition known as opinion. A case in point might be the trip to the emergency room after my nine-year-old (not having grown-up in the Amazon) played with a poison dart frog. Or why I'm drawn to #1 and #6 in your widget line-up.
But let's be honest here. We're involved in a commercially-driven pursuit and (like it or not) the real quantifiable value of design is generally determined by successful repeat sales and that can be difficult to predict.
Perhaps we can agree that the human response and emotional connections (real and perceived) to both product solutions and brands typically won't be made if they aren't also properly engineered, marketed, and placed. My experience tells me that it is the collaboration of individual personalities, business disciplines, market forces, and economic climates that has the greatest an effect on that gauge.
The real irony is not you're three-level definition of surface continuity from the engineering CAD lexicon: Positional, Tangential, and Curvature, it's that you've simply relabeled and illustrated the same 3 tried-and-true shape groups used by designers (artisans and engineers) for centuries. Geometric (= positional), Fluid / Organic (= curvature), and Combined (= tangential). Fundamentally, with or without prevailing style trends and tools aside, it is the carefully balanced application of each of these form groups in the finished product that contribute to the potential value and appeal of an object.
So, why does Design so often struggle to communicate its value to the world, when it's something we all recognize? It's because we don't.
We each perceive it differently due in part to our cumulative individual experiences and attitude about design in the context of our lives. And although I appreciate your theory, passion for design, and creative writing, I also believe there's something universal to be said about simply being more succinct - especially when seeking more professional credibility.
There's a level of surprise that comes with drawing or shaping by human hands. It is that magic which happens during the combined experience of moving one's hands through space while visualizing a form. A unique experience that is captured for the first time like lightning in a jar. Clicking a mouse around a flat surface will never generate much lightning. The physicality of designing should not be underestimated. The dialog that a sculptor has with a mound of clay or a sketch artist with pencil and paper is direct and immediate with no translation to computer commands in between (not to mention the nagging fear of a crash before saving). CAD should follow design, not be design. Otherwise, expect more boring Beetle, Cinquecento and Mini re-hashes and less fresh exciting forms.
P.S. Isn't the statement that no tangential relationships exist in nature really because there are no straight lines in nature?
thank you for the great read.
I think it would be interesting to examine other design tools, color, texture, even material, in a similar manner.
If it wasn't achieved in the old modernist quest for the universal truth, if Kandinsky's effort (to name one) was interesting probably because of its use of poetic narrative rather than a scientific method (thus profiting a much more layered, multi-flavoured tool to approach the subject), I humbly believe the focus might be wrong here.
As designers we shouldn't be trying to dissect emotion to understand it as tidy system, we should be working on our ability to connect, to experience that dimension, to design the emotional level as a whole.
Gray, it feels like you where trying too hard to apprehend the Yin through Yang structures.
Humans are both naturally emotive, which ties us to the rest of nature, and rational, which is a distinguishing characteristic. But Humans are a natural species and our behaviors are natural, which means that one could argue that human-created tangential curves are in fact, naturally occurring. Humans manipulate their surroundings much like other creatures, and our habits are no less natural than theirs. The difference is that we have the ability to understand why we do it and the effect it has, allowing us to act or react accordingly. There is no difference between humans and nature, but the human animal can observe its surroundings and combine both the curvature and positional patterns and surfaces to create tangential patterns and surfaces.
Also, one could argue that tangential lines do occur naturally without human manipulation, but that they occur implicitly (as an implied line between individual objects in relation to each other), rather than explicitly (as a physical connection between surfaces), and humans as a rational species are able to perceive that connection and translate its emotive properties into physical properties.
I am Professor of Morphology for future Industrial Designers at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Some years ago we published a paper presented at the Maths and Design Conference 2004. Here is the link to it www.documentosplm.com.ar/pdftextos/MunozLopezCF.pdf
It is another view on the subject and on complexity of surfaces in products.
We still work on this topic with the students of one of our courses because we think it is a relevant issue in product design.
Is there anywhere to download CAD models of the Periodic Table so an engineer can better understand the actual round and section sweep features called out to create these forms?
It would be interesting to see this analysis of the classes continuity applied to typography across several languages (Roman character and Chinese character fonts, for example); the form of fonts definitely invoke different emotions. I definitely feel that fonts that are composed entirely of tangencies and lines (whether serif or san serif) look mechanical and constructed, living in the level of the letter forms rather than in the level of the language and the emotions being communicated by the choice of typography, whereas fonts carefully formed with curvature continuity with care by the typographer don't exhibit that same constructed feel. Fonts that exhibit both curvature and positional continuity while lacking merely tangential continuity (the FF Dax Wide family, for example) feel elegant yet have that edge, much like the examples you showed in the widgets that have both C0 and C2 continuity.
I like the table, but I don't think it necessarily should be called "periodic," because I don't see how periodicity of the effects of the various types of continuity are displayed. The relationships on a true periodic table are orthogonal, naturally forming rows and columns (even when displayed in curved and alternate table forms), but the table you display has a hexagonal layout relationship between the form combinations.
Still, I truly believe that there is a huge value inherent in taxonomical descriptions of form such as this one, and I look forward to see where it goes.
(Additional notes: Class-A surfaces denote far more than C2 continuity, and there are many who feel that the 2008 PowerBook is a shadow of the design strength of the 2001 "TiBook", which had a much more aggressive edge treatment. What you show is an image of a 2003/2004 Alu PowerBook, not a 2001 TiBook.)