Our friends at frog design recently released a short documentary on Industrial Design in the Modern World, a kind of iterative manifesto (the consultancy's first but certainly not their last), featuring several key players of the design team. We had a chance to catch up with Creative Director Jonas Damon on the broader message of the piece, as well as his thoughts on user experience and a possible revision to Dieter Rams' canonical principles of design.
Core77: Can you elaborate on the points you touch on in the opening monologue? Specifically, to what degree do 'traditional' (or outdated) forms and materials embody value or character? For example, I recently came across an iPod speaker in which the dock opens like a cassette tape deck, evoking a certain nostalgic charm despite being rather impractical (it was difficult to see the screen behind the plastic).
Jonas Damon: The opening monologue is about the physical constraints that have guided forms in the past vs. forms today, and the opportunities that arise from the absence of these constraints. 'Honesty' in design is a widely admired quality, and in the past that honesty was expressed by skillfully sculpting with and around a given product's physical conditions, rather than just hiding or disguising these. So when products were more mechanical, they had a more imposing DNA that informed their character; their mechanics largely defined their identities. Many product types came preconditioned with an iconic, unmistakable silhouette.
Today, most products in the consumer electronics space can be made with a rectangular circuit board, a rectangular screen, and a rectangular housing. Therefore, the natural expression of these products today is limited to a rectangle—not really a unique identity. Expression of character becomes more nuanced and malleable. With that newfound freedom, we have to be more sensitive, judicious and inventive. These days, 'honesty' is more complex and difficult to design for, as it's about the intangible aspects of the brand the product embodies.
Traditional forms and materials have cultural value because of their iconic, built-in character. The starting point for many contemporary consumer electronics forms is generic and sterile, so historical forms are often tapped to artificially trigger our memory-based emotions. It's been a popular fallback that we may be a little tired of these days, but on occasion its been well executed, and even that can have merit.
Of course, the 'flat black rectangle' effect also implies a shift from traditional form-follows-function I.D. to a broader, UX-centric approach to design (i.e. some argue that Apple's focus on iOS7 is simply a sign that they've shifted from hardware innovation to the UX/software experience). What is the relationship between hardware and UX?
Hardware is an integral part of UX. A true "user experience" is multi-sensory: when you engage with something, don't you see, feel, hear, maybe even smell that which you are engaging with? (I'm not sure why anybody refers to solely screen-based interactions as "UX"; that notion is outdated) As an Industrial Designer, I am a designer of User Experience. ID has gotten richer since we've started considering "living technology" as a material. By "living technology," I mean those elements that bring objects to life, that make them animate and tie them to other parts of the world around us: sensors, screens, haptics, connectivity, software, etc. By claiming these elements as part of our domain (or by tightly embedding their respective expert designers/engineers in our teams), we are able to create holistic designs that are greater than the sums of their parts. The documentary is relevant and thought-provoking, but I imagine quite a bit ended up on the cutting room floor (so to speak). Do you see it as a timely 'State of the Union' position piece or a broader manifesto? Alternately, do you see frog 'iterating' on its approach to design moving forward?
Yes, there was an awful lot that we were unfortunately not able to include in the video! frog is defined by its many voices, which means that five minutes would never be enough to encapsulate a true frog manifesto. We are also always evolving our thinking around the things we do, so an iterative approach to video making would better reflect our dynamic environment. This video is the first for Industrial Design, so it sets the stage. The next one will go right into the future.
Similarly, in terms of your own practice, do you think, say, Dieter Rams' Ten Principles of Good Design hold true today? Would it even be possible to establish a set of top-level principles in this day and age?
Yes, I think Dieter Rams' Ten Principles still hold up for the most part (...in my humble opinion). At frog, we construct design and experience principles for many of our projects; they serve to keep our clients and ourselves on track as we go down the rabbit hole of design. They tend to be very specific to a client's unique set of values and aspirations—this is how it is possible to design a range of products, services and experiences that still feel connected. The Ten Principles are remarkable of course because they are relatively universal and are just so... rational!
But still, a lot has changed since he first composed them. Maybe we can call out some that do not reflect our times so much anymore:
Good Design is Unobtrusive: While I realize the word 'obtrusive' is negative, I do believe there is room for design that is noticeable, expressive and prominent. We live in a loud, rich, complex world, and its OK for design to reflect that.
Good Design is Thorough to the Last Detail: This holds true in an ideal, best-case scenario, but I also think our world is banged-up enough that many things would benefit from design even if some details are not quite perfect. If an incomplete design removes harm and creates benefits, it deserves the moniker "good." Also, many products and services are rolled out as beta releases these days and rely on consumer feedback for their next round of iterative development. Many of these beta releases still qualify as 'Good Design.'
Good Design is as Little Design as Possible: There is double meaning in this! First, there is a misconception that something simple is less design. That is obviously not true—a ton of design goes into simplifying something, therefore, good design could be as much design as possible. Sometimes. The other, very contemporary/hipster meaning is that any design is too much design already—design as too corporate/marketing/agenda driven.
Finally, it wouldn't be fair to say one of two of these principles may no longer apply without offering up a new one in its place. Here's a start at crafting a new principle that is appropriate for the times we live and work in:
Good Design is Inclusive: The audiences we design for are becoming increasingly large, diverse and inclusive. Good Design seeks to lower the barriers to entry.
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