Friday, December 12, 2008

Functionalist Design

Objects need to have a function. Or at the very least, just one, “designated” function. This function acts as a label, and helps us find a place for the object somewhere on the giant imaginary shelf of useful things in our lives. But what if an object has more than one usage than besides the intended function? What if it happens to be very good at some function besides the intended one, does this change the way we see, relate to, and classify the thing?
My pet hates are the useless things that somehow survive in this world due to some human weakness for shiny objects, silly objects, or blatantly cute objects.
My design loves are the objects that seem to embody, or intuitively suggest their function. We use many clever words, such as “intuitive”, “form language”, “form follow function”. The richness and joy in design comes from the variety of apparently correct ways that a function can be represented in an object or tool, often this manifestation of usefulness is coupled with a proportional, emotional rise on the part of the beholder. Good design makes you happier. Bad design will make your life hell.
You could say that, and this is not my idea, that “there is no function, only form”. It is in the usage of the object that a function becomes ingrained, the human element has to be present in order for an object to perform a certain task, and culture has a great deal to do with this. I’m reminded of an account I read about a Cambodian man recounting behavior of the Khmer Rouge, who would confiscate watches and wear them in multiples of each arm. They could not read the watches and besides, there was no point, they had always told the time by watching where the sun was in the sky. The watches were just for decoration, pretty nifty wristbands.
A favorite example of mine is the phenomenon of the cigarette lighter used as a bottle opener. Some call this the “Scandinavian” way, a not-so-subtle reference to their culturally relaxed attitude towards alcohol consumption.
The method is simple. If you are right handed, hold the bottle in your left, with your hand tightly around the neck of the bottle, in such a way that the cap is level with your thumb and forefinger. With the lighter in your right hand, wedge the non business-end between the bottle cap and the beginning part of the forefinger. Using the forefinger as a fulcrum, and the lighter as a sort of lever, the soft plastic of the lighter becomes caught in the bottle cap, just enough to pull it from the bottle.
This technique appears crude and destructive, and to a degree, it is. The lighter’s base suffers from being chewed by the bottle cap, and in time will develop the appearance of having been gnawed at by rodents. But the thinking is mechanically very sound, and even possibly clever. The lighter is just soft enough to hold the bottle cap, but solid enough to act as a mechanical advantage against the finger. This form of reasoning holds very well in machining and tool making, where the sensibility for the hardness of materials relative to each other is what allows for the advantages drawn from the properties of those materials to be used to full potential. Wonderful stuff.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

My feelings about Limited Production/ Experimental Design

This sort of design, with no specific user group in mind, has its own place in the spectrum of design-related activity.
Material explorations, unorthodox directions and wistful, “why-not” products may not necessarily be welcome in the supply-conscious world which I envision in the future, but their existence is justified, even vindicated, by the fact that these are manifestations of a very important human trait: lateral thought.
Lateral thought is one of the most important ideation tools available to the Industrial Designer.
Industrial Design, at least for me, is the discipline of producing tools that will improve the consumer’s quality of life. That means review and examination of individual lifestyles, the identification of common problems/needs and the attempt to improve the experience of living by encouraging modified behavior around the new tool.
When addressing a problem, traditionally, one looks at past situations where similar conditions were present to inform a solution. This method is called logical, safe, conservative, informed by precedent. Although this line of thought is often successful in producing positive results, there is always the drawback that the disadvantages of the new process versus past processes will be analogous.
In our times of heavily consumer taste-driven product design, the issue of creating a new product has more to do with market research than intuition. After being given a brief, the designer will examine existing products in the field of interest and compile statistics based on market research and consumer trends. During the design phase, these values will weigh heavily on influencing the shape and features of the product, to the point where one could argue that the new product is merely an amalgamation of all that is good in existing designs, culled, cut and stitched together in a new color range and package. It would appear that there is a distinct lack of imagination and intuition in this process. Not to mention humanity.
I have chosen to examine the Memphis design movement as an example of limited production design.
Ettore Sottsas, Italian designer/architect, famous for his 1969 Olivetti red “Valentine” typewriter, founded Memphis (Milan) in 1981 as a separate platform for experimentation, a research lab, which, admittedly, was not expected to sell much, if at all. The idea was to altogether remove the smothering pressures of commercial design, so that ideas could develop and come into their own in a nurturing environment.
Sottsas and his design team were thus able to produce furniture and decorative objects which existed in a world of their own, made no direct reference to the market and product precedents, and exuded iconoclastic character to great acclaim.
Memphis’s style, retrospectively, seems to sum up the aesthetic of the 1980’s. Whichever product you care to choose, they all seem to bring to mind the color, shape, experiments and sometimes the just-plain-wrongness that seemed so common to design from a decade which many seem to want to forget.

“I truly believe that our duty as an architect or a designer is to design
things which attract luck, rooms which protect people...”
“I design things for life states.”
Ettore Sottsass

Saturday, November 22, 2008


In nature, the vast majority of systems, relationships and circulating chemicals have existed together for hundreds, even hundreds of thousands of years, with no sign of imbalance.
Before the industrial age, human beings were directly reliant upon their local environment for sustenance. They grew their own seasonal vegetables, fruits, meats, and were much more aware of the wild varieties of plant and animal that could supplement their diet, when available.
Many of the things we use everyday are reminiscent of some natural precursor. The most common spatula can be compared to the fin which is used to handle fish on a salt-water seal. Propellers for sea ships are shaped so as to cut through the water with the greatest ease, but also displace water in such a manner as to enable the mechanism to propel itself forward.
The natural world is a fundamentally harsh environment. Survival is the reward for passing through a selection process which effectively sets a minimum, though exacting, standard, for any organism seeking to establish itself and proliferate. For the latter to be possible, the organism must seek to integrate itself into the chain of relationships which connect all other living things in the chosen environment. There seems to be some collective consciousness which guides organisms to evolve in a certain, favorable, direction rather than another, less so. This balance of conditions allows an eco-system to sustain itself, as organisms unable to contribute to the balance end up starving or being consumed. We human beings have changed a great deal since the days before electricity. Our cultural and material modernization has drawn us away from contact with the natural world, and with that, our ability to think holistically has been greatly reduced.
The concept of community has changed so much in the past 100 years, since the introduction of the radio, television and the internet. Previously, households, neighbors and friends had much closer bonds, as there was little in the way of distraction, and diversions were much more physical and shared, such as the playing of ‘live’ music, storytelling, reading to each other, playing chess, board games, gossip, etc…
Radio, then Television, then the PC gradually isolated families in their individual households, step by step. The knit of community became less tight, and the need for individuality much greater, this pursuit sanctioned in the name of self-fulfillment.
While we have gotten to know ourselves better and doubtless improved our individual lots, our relationship with “the bigger picture” has deteriorated, to the point where very few people can actually say with certainty what the weather will be today by looking out the window, instead choosing to rely (albeit mistrustfully) on the media-provided weather reports.
Our ancestors knew that most of the solutions to their problems could be resolved by looking around them and learning from their surroundings.
To quote R. Buckminster Fuller:
“I don’t imitate nature. I try and understand her operating principles.”
Here are some examples of successful holistic projects which feature Biomimicry.

Los Gaviotas

Buckminster Fuller Institute- John Todd’s Appalachian Regeneration Presentation

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Humanitarian Design

A large number of people are forced into a tight space, having just fled from harm’s way. Stressed, tired, and overcrowded, eventually nature calls and with nothing better than a bucket available, a latrine is established for the group. This seems to work adequately, but only until the bucket overflows onto the ground and ends up contaminating and infecting the whole room via the feet of all present. It seems that although the situation was unfavorable to begin with, it was the fact that the bucket overflowed and kept overflowing that marked the tipping point for sanitary oblivion. Thus, this is a situation where a primary positive action (the designation of the bucket as latrine), turned desperate when the group lost control of managing the secondary, unpleasant, taboo element (the overflowing of the sewage bucket, for which no-one wished to be responsible).

Dr. Bruce Becker’s used this description of the confined roomful of people having to use a bucket as a toilet, and the disastrous consequences of that bucket overflowing for lack of any drainage or disposal system as an insightful analogy into the mechanics of refugee camp life. His presentation of these harsh realities made us all too aware of the fact that we have it really, really good, over here in the relatively stable First World.

In refugee camps, giant, communal latrines generally turn into disaster sites, breeding grounds for disease, and possible areas of contention.

Human ingenuity is generally heightened in situations of duress, but perversely, judiciousness, rationale and foresight often go out the window.

(It may be that dealing with sewage is taboo in parts Africa, as in most of the world. Thus far, it has been practically impossible to receive any opinion on the matter. All I can glean is that it improper to favor the left hand in Muslim societies, as this is the hand used to “cleanse the body”.)

What can be done?
If privies could be set up to service a smaller number of users, it might be that the smaller number would take greater responsibility for the cleanliness of the more intimately shared facility. This follows after the idea of Micro-loans, where a small group of people will accept the loan and vouch for each other, which then ensures that each member is more likely to do right by the pledge, thanks to the dreaded phenomenon of peer pressure. A combination of first phase initiative and second phase management may improve conditions within camps. Becker mentioned the importance of restoring a sense of social order by creating jobs within the camp which would benefit the inhabitants individually, although selectively, but also improve the quality of life of the whole community.

People can, and generally prefer to, help themselves. By designing and distributing products which perform a simple and familiar task without imposing any kind of cultural bias or message, even the most discombobulated individual will be able to obtain ownership of their situation, a sense of control over their fate, and begin on the road to restored peace of mind.