Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Why is design everything?

I have always been a keen admirer of good design. The idea of making something good just for the sake of making it was never so appealing to me until I stumbled upon the concept of good design. It is right there in plain sight - the way we hold the spoon, the way we use our vessels in the kitchen, the way we hold our pens, the way we sit on our chairs, the way we walk on the street, practically everything we do everyday is heavily influenced by design. All the mundane items I mentioned just now were designed (or in some cases hopelessly copied) by some designer at some point in time. They went through the pain of sketching up a prototype & then tried to imagine how it would be used in different situations. 

With such a dense influence of design on us, do we actually notice it? The point of good design according to me is that the product must completely disappear from its physical form & become an extension of the body. So we stop noticing how the object is designed & we focus more on how we are using it. A staggering number of daily objects successfully do that. No matter if they were natively designed or copied from some original, they still serve the same purpose as the designer intended. 

BBC had a 5 part documentary series called The Genius of Design. It was by far the best tribute to an art form which has always stayed hidden & unglamorous. But the role it plays in our lives cannot be underestimated. This led me to another question, why has good design stayed on for such a long time? What drives it to survive apart from the will of a few motivated individuals who struggle to solve day to day problems through products & processes?

The answer leaped almost instantly within a few minutes of watching the first episode of the BBC series. 

'Design is a slave to capitalism'
Without the financial incentive to create a better product, no person will keep on designing good products. Capitalism, the idea that someone is willing to pay for a product & appreciate its value for the job that it does is perhaps the chief intention of design. The profit may not be directly achieved, but it does drive the design process. 

'Design is never a pure activity. It is always connected to how things are bought, sold, recycled. It is the entire product life cycle.'
Design for the sake of design doesn't even sound right. It is based on a series of observations on how the product will become a solution to some daily problem. I am tempted to think of the first stone tool & what a product of genius it must have been! Although the sophisticated nature that design has achieved at the moment, being based on a financial incentive, must also create efficiency in making the product. This makes it mandatory for a designer to think of the entire life cycle of the product rather than just making the object only once in a studio.

The documentary series, goes from the industrial revolution, to the early, mid & late 20th century design ideologies to create this chronology of thought processes driving a designer's mindset. Schools of design unlike schools of art became problem solvers rather than just being temples of creativity. Manifesting a need through an object is no less than art, but creating a need just to manifest it through some object seems a bit vain. Good Design lives way above this vain creationism of objects. 

What kicked designers in the nuts to actually solve so many of our daily problems? To imagine a problem which some designer solved - remember the time when you wore a poorly designed pair of shoes which made your feet itch & made you want to remove them every chance you got. That's how annoying bad design is. It is rather astounding at what scale design has invaded our daily lives. There has to be something more to it than just solving problems. 

This is where design met its long distant cousins - manufacturing & marketing. Mass production was not an old idea during the industrial revolution. In fact it was born out of the ability of the machines to churn much more items than manual labour could. The idea behind mass production according to the documentary was -
'mass production = universal availability + universal affordability'. 

Americans perfected this idea with their corollary = Standardized parts made with special tools assembled by semi or unskilled workers to an uniform design. 

Imagine a revolution in the way manufacturers started to think where one faction of society has been completely absorbed in making more items with less cost which led them to design newer versions of manufacturing machines capable of more efficient production. The only problem they faced was their ability to make the customer appreciate the value of reduced manufacturing cost & improved quality. Customers were still paying the same amount or even less in some cases for the same product. But capitalism being extremely efficient, the race to cover a bigger portion of the market makes it difficult to keep selling at the same price. Prices constantly drop as some efficient manufacturers keep selling at a lower price thus passing on the benefits of efficiency to their customers.

So now we know how improving manufacturing helps design turn into reality but sometimes totally fails to create an appreciation of it. That's when the other distant cousin, marketing steps in. The better the product is marketed the more chance the manufacturer has in really reaping the benefits of efficiency. Imagine Apple selling stunningly designed consumer products. Why doesn't Apple sell its products at a discount or at the same price as other manufacturers? Why do more & more Apple customers in effect pay for the design excellence where some other companies have blatantly copied some of their designs & continue to charge a lot less? Apple projects themselves & their ability to design beautiful & most importantly functional products in a way which makes people appreciate it. Sometimes even for the sake of appreciation. If Apple's products were not functional & merely aesthetic, then they would most certainly have been stuck in the same rut as the rest of the competition. 

By marrying function & design at the same time making sure that the cost of production & distribution stays low, Apple qualifies its most basic responsibility to its shareholders - increasing profitability. Thus design comes full circle when people understand their need of a product & equate it with an available product.

That's why I admire good design. Something so hidden from our day to day point of view can have a profound impact on the way we live. 

A few tributes to good design:
  1. Gary Hustwit Design Trilogy
  2. Dieter Rams' Ten Principles of Good Design
  3. Architect Norman Foster's Biopic


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