Sunday, November 30, 2008

Did You See That ID?

What is design?
Over the course of this semester, I have gotten the much needed time to think about design. To figure out a definition, to figure out why I like certain designers, and where I’m headed. Frankly, I’m not that much closer to those answers, but I have learned a great deal trying to get there. As it turns out, the process of designing follows a similar winding trail. Researching, sketching, rendering, presenting, and repeating. This continuous cycle begins and ends with questions. A great designer is never done designing (but is aided in decision making thanks to deadlines). Although this class was not structured like a typical art history survey, I’ve come to realize that’s because design does not work in the same way. Yes, there have been major schools and figures throughout its history, yet ID is much more complex than a simple line graph can show. This is because design is not simply a car, toy, or table. It does not sit idle in some remote gallery, it’s everywhere, everyday. Some people have so much ID, they don’t know where to store it (I suppose you could store it in…well another variety of ID). Others don’t have as much as we do, so we ID for them. Because everything man made was (at one point or another) designed, it is safe to say design is one of the most influential career paths.

But why do we ID?
I’m beginning to believe we design because we want to see what comes next. We want to be there when that great idea comes and spreads like wildfire. We want to inspire, help, and share, to make someone laugh halfway around the world. Designers have quite the responsibility. Not only do they reflect and express culture, they also help create it. Hopefully for the better, designers affect the lives of a countless number of people (not to mention the rest of nature). They have to realize when systems no longer work, and be able to look back at the ones that did. Designers know the importance of observation and curiosity.

I’m most attracted to design that functions parallel to art. I find beauty in materials, context, and the process of design. I enjoy things that withstand the test of time because they are simple, and natural. I'm interested in cognitive science, sociology, technology, engineering, sculpture, performance, but most importantly, where they all converge. I like to imagine my future self designing goods that make people happy without making life worse for others. No, not every designer needs to attempt to save the world (hopefully a few keep trying), but every designer needs to design consciously. While being conscious of the here-and-now, it’s also important to keep one foot over the LOTF (ledge of the future). If we’re not willing to take the risk, will anybody else go for it?

When Art Met Design

“Art, I would like to introduce you to Design.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Art.
“Likewise,” replied Design.

Should there be a difference between art and design? Should design attempt to be received in a gallery space, or should it have a worn spot from years of use? It is possible that the distinction between the two is not how they are produced, but in how they are perceived. For the purpose of this comparison, I define art as work created to be expressive and design as work created to solve a problem. This division also creates different “user” types; someone using design is a consumer, where as someone using art is an observer.

I think good design (like good art) should always be admired for its ability to communicate its intentions. I also believe that there is value in an object’s ability to be reproduced, which is often overlooked. When a product gains a similar level of value as a piece of art (such as the Barcelona Chair by Mies van Der Rohe) it is no longer thought of as disposable, replaceable, etc.



Where good art and design meet is usually a fascinating juncture. An object that is beautiful in its simplicity makes for a great work. Art & Design is possible when an object can successfully fulfill its intended use as well as respond to its environment. There seems to be an inherent value in one-off fabrication. However, the same value lives within a mass produced object that is effortlessly absorbed by its surroundings. It is apparent that Art & Design have met when an object both responds to society as well as drives it forward.

One design group who embraces this concept is OKAY studio. This team of nine Industrial Designers met at the Royal College of Art and works both collaboratively and independently throughout Europe. By using simple mechanics and materials, these designers allow art and design to cohabit.

making art out of the mundane // making the mundane art

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Try not to think about it.

In recent news, humanitarian and environmental issues have been hurled at us from every direction. Daily, we are begged to go green, use less, recycle, to help the starving, the homeless, and the dying, as if we forgot these are issues affecting the world. But maybe we did forget. Maybe we forgot about the on-going civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or about the tons of plastic garbage floating (and sinking) in the Pacific, or even about the war in Iraq.

Or could it be that overwhelming cycle of coverage is making us go blind?

Is it a socialist idea that we should help people who don’t have as much as we do? Should we force our aid and values on people suffering in lands raped by industrialization and colonialism? Haven’t we been “changing” since the first tool was built millions of years ago?

It’s safe to say too many of us are content living on this continent, blocking out thoughts of people suffering on the other side of the world (and the other side of town). Maybe humanitarianism and environmentalism should not be thought of merely as a fad or a political tactic. Maybe the real change needs to happen within us.

At times, I feel as if my peers and I are walking backwards into the “real world.” Have we given enough thought to what industrialization has done to our planet? Do we care what excess has done to our culture? While we’re still in this “fake world,” maybe we should make the effort to think about how our designs will eventually affect not only consumers, but the rest of the planet. I challenge any of you who end up reading this to think about the things you chose to forget.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What Does It Matter?

“What does it matter, you’re not going to save them all,” the old man said.

“It matters to this one,” the boy replied as he threw a beached turtle into the water.

Even though one person will not save humanity, they do have the power to change at least one other life for the better. The significance of this story, shared by Dr. Becker, is that the world is not going to change in one great effort, but by the efforts of many who share this belief. Positive change, in whatever shape it takes, is waiting to happen all around us.

It is the job of the designer to investigate and embrace the challenge of correcting the strain we (developed countries) have put on other nations and that we (the collective population) have put on Earth. Without a constant desire to evolve, humanity may as well be non-existent.

I was fortunate enough to attend this weekend’s A Better World by Design conference and hear Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity, share how he feels significant change comes about. He said that realistic change comes from groups that move step by step to solve a problem, and it is those who “think big and act small” who will lead those efforts. That same principle seems prevalent in every project presented this the weekend.

Should we do nothing because it might be wrong?

It is fair to say that learning from failed attempts is far better than never attempting. The knowledge gained from those trials can only push a designer to uncover more about a process, material, or culture.

Another collective principle presented during this conference is the need for proactive, not reactive, solutions. Due to many underlying factors, a portion of aid is reactive; chasing problems instead of creating systems to prevent them from occurring all together.

One example of a proactive design solution was presented by Iqbal Z. Quadir, founder of GrameenPhone. This cell phone network was established in Bangladesh in 1993. His philosophy of design continues to empower the poor citizens of this developing country through the use of technology. By setting up a strong system of communication, GrameenPhone dynamically changed both the culture and productivity of Bangladeshis. In this case, the design of a cell phone network sparked positive change. It may be impossible to say how many social or economic issues were avoided because of this endeavor.

One of the easiest ways to make a difference in the world as a (young) designer is to be informed of the challenges we face (on any scale), and to be consciously active in making a small difference. With that, it is also important to share your efforts (as small as they may be) to foster interest and appreciation for humanitarian design. It is the responsibility of the designer to contribute their knowledge and passion in creating a greater good.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Role of Products in Society

How do products get meaning?

The construction of a product is not the creation of its meaning. Rather, meaning is the intangible value that is associated with a tangible object. It is through society, the designer, and the user that a product eventually is given meaning. The job of a designer is to create material symbols that reflect culture. By consuming and working with these symbols, people create meaning, which builds relationships within society. Through function and form language, the creator inputs social norms and standards that allow the object to gain meaning. However, this “meaning” is insignificant without an audience to identify its correlation with society. A product is able to obtain multiple meanings due to the wide range of users and societies. In addition, if an object is removed from its intended context, a single user will experience that product in a different way.

To what extent do you believe a designer is able to “design” meaning into a product and determine a user’s behavior?

Good design is a conversation of ideas that effectively is passed through a product. A designer is only as capable of creating meaning as the user is interpreting it. The designer is incapable of creating a significant product without being able to connect their principles with the user’s knowledge. A designer can only “design” the visual language that meaning is associated with. Furthermore, the “design” of a user’s behavior is created not from a single object, but through experience and prior knowledge.

Do you believe design had the power to effect or even control how a person can or cannot act?

I believe it is not design, but society that controls how a person acts. Design (the object) is merely a facet through which value, morals, and norms are communicated. These tangible symbols are testaments to our understanding of traditions that extend to the beginning of mankind.

How do you understand the user’s “agency”?

The user’s agency is predetermined by society. However, as a working part of the greater culture, each user has the ability to change their interpretation of society. Even then, the way they interact with an object is regulated by their relationship to that thing. For example, if a boy is brought up to believe that it is acceptable to play with Barbies and wear makeup, then their agency will be based on those conditions. If that same child is taught never to touch girl’s toys, their ability to act will be significantly different. In other words, an individual’s free will depends largely on external forces such as socialization. Either way, the boy will have a unique opinion of gender roles. A designer is able to suggest ways of interacting with a product, but it is the influence of society that eventually dictates how people will relate to that object.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

National Geographic: The End of Night

As it turns out, the featured article in November's National Geographic is about light pollution and its effect on animals, including humans.

Check it out:

Sunday, October 26, 2008


"History of Street Lighting in the United States." 2008. Wikipedia. 25 Oct. 2008.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Disenchanted Light: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century. University of California Press, 1988.