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Genius of Design (doco – ep #5)

28 September, 2010

Genius of Design : Episode 5: ‘Objects of Desire

Final episode of the series finally watched. The gist of the episode was basically a juxtaposition of ‘previously’ and ‘the last 30 years and to the beyond’ a la:

Design Previously Design in the Last 30 years
Rational, long-lasting, functional, for the collective betterment Fashion-driven, free market, abundant consumer choice
For greater good About individual desire
“Any colour you want as long as it’s black” “Any colour you want. And any metallic finish. And any material. And real collectors get all of the above”
From democracy to decadence
Modernism and Bauhaus Memphis Group, Peter Saville, Marc Newson, Philippe Starke, Alessi, Ikea

The episode posed the question that because we can design and make anything, should we? Then it got green and while I know it’s important, and I believe in sustainability of design etc, etc, it made me think about the Apple guy who earlier in the episode says, and I paraphrase, protect me as a consumer from the way you’ve solved the problem and just show me what it (product/service/thing) does for me.

It started with Stephen Fry, whilst surrounded by deliciously want-able consumer electronics saying, “humans are not machines, our first response to anything is emotional. Not intellectual, not functional.”  It always comes back to this and it bears some reminding in all our worlds of design – be it industrial, graphic, service. It made me think of alarm clocks. Their function is to wake you – a time entered by you will result in a sound that rouses you from your slumber. Ah, but the snooze button. The emotional response to the buzz of “just 5 more minutes…”. That is what makes it for a human.

What most resonated with me about the episode was:

  • the description of design ‘with personality’ (like Michael Graves/Alessi Kettle below)
  • ‘aspirational possessions’ (Peter Saville) and how we’re beyond need, because we can just ‘have’
  • That buying a ‘thing’ says something about me, about my choices.
  • That the endless variations and options available mean I am able to ‘personalise’ what is a mass-made piece of design

Case in point. The Keep Cup.

I get a coffee everyday. I feel the guilt of being personally responsible for destroying the planet due to the non-recyclability of the cup I am given with my latte purchase. I see these Keep Cup’s for sale. But it’s not until I’m told I can pick whatever combination of colours I want – thereby making it ‘personal’ to me – that I buy one (after 15 minutes-give-or-take of combining). I take it to work, and manage to encourage a fellow coffee drinker to purchase one also. But dammit all to heck if she doesn’t come back with a better colour combination (and she’s a Business Analyst!) So, of course I buy another with different colours so that I can re-make my cup to be more reflective of ‘who I am’ (below). This is individual mass production as one-off because I can customise it to represent me. (Although it turns out who I am is someone who covets someone’s unconscious purchase choice and then remakes their original choice, rationalising to my colleagues why it matters. But now I love my cup. Until I recently saw a red one…)

Back to the show, highlights from the rest of the episode were:

  • The Memphis Group – started in Milan in the 80s by Ettore Sottsass and featured a group of designers who took the position that design’s job was to offer the consumer choice and abundance – to bring personality to the production line. I wasn’t so much about their output, but nice to know their place in history
  • The ‘personality’ and cool factor of ‘design classics’ were examined. Take Starke’s Juicy Salif. Its failings are over looked because of the cool factor (i.e. where do the lemon pips end up once one has squozen one’s citrus?)
  • Ikea – products have to look good, work well, be low-priced, sustainable, and fit in a flat pack. So designing it must include how to take it apart and put it back together. The final design must solve the problem within these parameters, so said designer Marcus Arvonen. Standardised but personal. I remember years ago being at a conference and hearing an Ikea design guru talking about their process of design for the Lampen (below). It was not the design process or the creativity or the finished product that had me mesmerised. It was that the designer had design with the following in mind: what size box the lamp would go in and how many of those boxes could fit on a palette that would be stored in the warehouse. It was very powerful to me – why? Because it was full service design. It’s not just about the design and making, it’s about how it makes life palettable *ahem* to the forklift driver who stacks the palettes, and the stores that store the products, in order for the consumer to consume.
  • What modern design show could not mention Apple. So I won’t rehash what you can find out there already. Except for the articulate and shiny-as-an-iPhone-casing-headed Jonathan Ive who said good design is design that seems inevitable, that as a designer you deal with the complexity of the product (or service) and shouldn’t remind the consumer of the complexity behind the interaction or finger sweep or volume control because what you need to solve for them is “what does this product do for me”.
  • There was a section on the advent of the personal computer and the mouse and there are plenty o’resources with information should you be so inclined. I’d point you to the great book/website designinginteractions.com. Chapter 1 The Mouse and the Desktop capture what this section touched on regarding the Doug Englebart-led ‘Demo that Changed the World’ (PS: it is horrifying that googling the words “demo that changed the world’ also brings up references to Justin Bieber. You can probably get a Keep Cup with his face on it too). Anyhoo, what stuck with me in this section, because of the relevance to my world as a service design advocate, were the following gems:
    • ‘user friendly’ and ‘user-centred’ notions came out of simplifying the unbelievably complex world of the computer because “if everyday people will use [the PC] why not ask them what they want”
    • And the powerful yet innocent statement that changed my world 10 years back: asking of a user “Tell me what you would do by doing it”


The final statements in the episode summed up the arc of the series. Our (design) history is captured in the movement from craftsmen, transformed by the industrial age, into considered and conscious designers. Design, as a response to capitalism and consumerism has, in the main made our lives better. We have transformed the natural into stuff – some of which we want, some of which we need, some of which is a response to what we want but don’t need (to wit: I want my coffee, but landfills don’t need my cups). Design is about responding to need – society, business, or even design-created need. It is not decoration, it is not development, it may be new or it may build on existing but it never regresses. Design has helped make sense of our world, and has made it (and will make it) a better considered world.

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