Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What Is Good Design?!

Now that it is the end of the semester and the class, I think that the most important theme that I have extracted from my experience in this class is the debate between whether good design is based on quality or affordability. There was one class in particular where this topic came up, and I remember it being one of the most personally impacting of the semester.
The discussion came up in reference to the Functionalism assignment towards the beginning few weeks of the class, and stemmed from the reactions of students in the timelines we were asked to create. The subject of the timelines was the chair, and we were asked to reference within them the ideas of the importance of function set forth by Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus movement.
While I chose to view functionalism more from the direction of how it defines form, I found the other ideas people had about it interesting. For some reason when trying to come up with a good example of functionalism in furniture I barely even thought about cost, or production, or manufacturability. Perhaps this is because it was one of the earlier assignments in the semester, but I definitely overlooked a lot of the more interesting if slightly more obscure reasons for what makes good design.
One of the most interesting arguments that was brought up dealt with the question of whether one should design a good product, with quality materials and painstaking craftsmanship or something that might be cheaper to create but would therefore be cheaper for the consumer to buy. While the well-made product might last indefinitely and be almost more of a work of art than a product, it will also probably be expensive and therefore very limited. If only the wealthy can afford it, does it really make it worth it?
On the other hand, if something is made so that the average person can afford it without breaking the bank, does it mean instead that they will end up breaking their investment? There isn’t much point to buying a product if you have to buy it again in three years, and then another three years, until you might as well have bought the expensive piece to begin with. I think that this is one of the biggest Catch-22s in design today, because it depends pretty much on the individual user’s personal preference.
This conversation was never resolved in class, partially because of obvious time constraints but also because it really is a nearly impossible question to answer completely. Because individual opinion amongst consumers is so unique, there is no way to generalize it totally, only to the furthest percentile possible. So no matter how good one person thinks a design is, it does not mean that the design is actually good. It only means that it appeals to that person. It sounds cliché, but in this case the old parable that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” rings very true.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Beanbag to Bread

I had a very positive response to Tokujin Yoshioka’s furniture design work because I think that it embodies some of the aesthetics and ideals that I find important. In an earlier assignment when asked to address the subject of chairs while concentrating on functionality, I chose a beanbag chair. I thought that the bean bag chair represented simplicity and a return to basic necessary form very well, because it literally is nothing but form to support the user. It is just a large piece of fabric filled with some sort of conforming material that can mold to the necessary spatial and size requirements of any individual while still maintaining comfort. And it does it all very sparingly.
After researching into the beanbag chair, and then watching the video on Yoshioka (who was also listed on the page for this assignment), I decided that there was a very definite thread that could be followed connecting the two together. Yoshioka’s design for the PANE (bread) chair involves the use of fibers in ways that they would not typically be used. The chair starts out as basically a block of fibers that have some tensile and supportive strength that form a solid mass. It is then shaped by hand to the specific form and wrapped to maintain it. Next it is “cast” in a tube and heated to bring out a reaction in the fibers, making them more rigid and supportive. The finished form when pulled out of the tube after it has been “baked” is that of a spongy like tangle of fibers that has the ability to support a wait but really has no defined structure. I find this very consistent with the beanbag chair, not so much in form but in method and in the achievement of what is being attempted. In other words, I think that they both accomplish the same goals in different ways. While the beanbag chair has basically no form on its own but only achieves form when someone is sitting on it, the PANE chair always has a form but has no internal structure that is the same. In a microscopic view it is just as loose as the beanbag, and it is only through human involvement that it is made into something more. In this way I think that Yoshioka’s endeavors into furniture design are effective in making the PANE chair the next level for minimalist design through material exploration.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Response to the Mercedes Benz "Boxfish" Concept

Taking aspects of nature and incorporating them into one’s design is nothing new, in fact it is probably the oldest form of design on the planet. If objects in nature such as the Nautilus can arrange themselves accurately into mathematical formulas like the Fibonacci sequence, then it is fairly safe to say that they are doing something right. For this reason, I thought that the topic of the Mercedes Benz concept car that was adapted from the shape of a boxfish was very interesting, because it provided proof of nature as a design mantra.
However, I was a little disappointed when I actually researched the car. In fact, I didn’t get very far past the picture. While yes, indeed the car does show reflections of the boxfish both in color and shape, I think that it is too literal a translation of biological design. A product or design can be representative of an animal or plant without actually looking like someone superimposed the features of that animal onto an automobile frame. This might be a slight exaggeration in this case, but it is still the jist of the problem with the Mercedes.
While, yes, there is an explanation to WHY the biologists and researchers chose the boxfish for their design inspiration, the fact that they actually had to have an explanation for it is the problem. A design should speak for itself and its own aesthetic independently of its inspiration. While it is admirable to choose such a “pedestrian” fish for inspiration, it is still more important to create a piece that places aesthetic as priority over literal representation, and that is what I personally think falls short in this vehicle. There are definitely other examples of design let alone that of automobiles that achieves the mission that the Mercedes Benz designers have outlined.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

More Design Does Not Mean More Crap

When addressing the question of whether design influences or is influenced by the user, I believe that most good design is more the first because it should be a greater part service and a lesser part “setting the bar”. It is important in terms of progression for there to be room for the avant garde and the forward-thinkers, because without them all design would be circular and therefore nothing but modification without any innovation. However, this form of design for new expressions of form and discovery must take a second seat to design for a need. For example, it is all well and good for a designer to completely reinvent the way sixty percent of the art world reacts to form through studies in metal and plastic but what is that designer really doing? There was no empty void in the world that was gasping for a vase made completely out of one sheet of styrene, or a light that made it look like it wasn’t plugged in to anything. In many cases like these, the designer accomplished no great repair in the universe after the creation of their designs because there was no tear to begin with and therefore there is no one asking for a problem to be fixed.
This approach to how design affects a user ties in to the question brought up in class recently that asked whether it is wrong for us as industrial designers to introduce more into the world rather than addressing what is already there. There are plenty of things in this world that were designed ten, twenty, a hundred years ago and have not been redesigned since then that have problems and no longer function correctly in relation to how they did in the time in which they were created. It seems that especially now there are broader and broader problems arising that have become more on the tongues of regular people, not just the ultra-discerning or a limited few observers. Now is the perfect time for an industrial designer, not the worst, because it is now that people are starting to realize that things can fail, even if not especially things that by all assurances are not supposed to. There is a lot of mistrust in the world today but also a lot of willingness to become a community. Because of this, design has the ability to sway mass amounts of people extremely quickly; it is human nature to need something or someone to turn to when confused or in doubt and that is what people are now. It is our jobs to make sure that so long as we have people listening that we don’t sway them the wrong way, into mindless consummation, but rather show them what we can do to help.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with being a consumer, as long as a person is conscious and responsible. It is only to say that I tend to think that the real purpose of us as industrial designers is to be the problem solver not the artist. There is room for aesthetic, there is no doubt about that, but if that is all that a design is, then just making a pretty piece of crap and getting it manufactured ten million times is really not going to do a whole lot to aid an elderly woman who is having increasing trouble writing down anything because of severe arthritis and pens she can’t hold, but it will look fantastic on her side table.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Definition of Function

I thought that one of the most interesting things that I have learned thus far, or rather have thought about so far, this semester is the concept of function, and what it means to design. The function of any thing is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “the action for which a person or thing is specially fitted or used or for which a thing exists”, or in terms of synonyms it means a purpose. This is a very general and vague definition, however, as it could be applied to basically any noun that one could think of, since in one way or another everything in the universe has to have a purpose of some sort. Some of these purposes might be more important than others, or more significantly noticeable than others, such as the difference between the reason for the wheels on a car or the perhaps less significant addition of a hood ornament to the same vehicle. In this case, the wheels have a much more important function because they are key to the actual mechanics of the vehicle, what makes it work, essentially what defines it as a car. The hood ornament has a function as well, however, in that it is a type of branding for the car and thus transversely the company that makes the car. It’s function is less about the machinery of the car and more about what makes this particular car attractive to an individual who might be then more likely to buy it. This is only one example of the different types of functions that may be applied to any particular thing. However, this does not fully explain the definition of function as it applies to design, and particularly industrial design.
Almost instantly upon being introduced to the field of Industrial Design, we are confronted with the phrase “form follows function”, the basic motto of functionalist and modern design. This phrase becomes most prevalent in context with the Bauhaus school of design and craftsmanship, which emphasized the importance of a departure from ornamentation and needless decoration and a return to the basics of what makes the design or work of art what it is. These new ideals in modern design, embodied in the works of designers such as Walter Gropius, tend to represent a very literal translation of the word function, and somewhat limits the interpretation of what function might be. This literal approach intuitively defines function as being about the reason something is physically made. It has to do less with the branding as in the hood ornament in the example above, and more with the reason any aspect of the aesthetic components of a design are there, and whether they really should be there or not. In this structural sense it seems more important to strip away the excess of something to define its function and less important to realize function as a reason for why the product is actually being made, or what effect it will have on a given user or user group, or even the effect it might have on the space around it. It tends to focus on function as only being about what defines the product, but not what defines the future of that product or the resulting impact that product might have. There is a much broader spectrum of what function can be than is commonly accepted as being the proper functionalist way of design, and more possibilities of how it can pertain to the world.
Function can be more than a reason each component of a product works the way it does. It can also mean the reason a product was made to begin with, and how that reason aids in the life of a user and therefore makes the purpose of the product to create an end result that effects some aspect of a person’s life. One example of another method of functionalist design involves design for affordability, that is design with the intention in mind of creating something that can be bought by an intended user group and then used. It is one thing to design a beautiful work of art that costs twelve thousand dollars, but if it can’t be afforded by a common person, or at least the major percentage of people, then its function is simply to be a work of art: not a product. Conversely, however, if one were to design a chair that could be constructed from simple materials, with cheap labor costs, and thus go on the market for a reasonable price yet still be designed with aesthetic beauty and reliability involved, then that becomes its function; it is no longer simply a piece of furniture whose function is to support a human being’s weight.
In looking at products as topics for our timelines, I originally kept in mind the idea of functionalist design as meaning only that the form of a product or object is secondary to the function, and that the form should be defined by the literal, physical function of the object. However, now I realize that there is much more to functionalist design that I did not take into account. For instance, for my chair timeline I chose to do a beanbag chair and its history, because I thought it was a very good example of how the form of an object is defined by its function. In the case of a beanbag chair, it basically has no form other than to be functional, because its purpose is to mold ergonomically to an individual and that is exactly what is does, although it is basically a blob of fabric. However now I realize that not only should I have been looking for examples of how a beanbag chair serves a need, and how that could be a function. Perhaps its function is to occupy a space the way it does, or rather conserve space, or to create an aesthetic difference in a space. The possibilities for what could be defined as function are seemingly endless, and that is, so far, one of the most important things I have learned in class.

Friday, October 17, 2008