Sunday, November 30, 2008

Final Thoughts I Collaboration and Inclusion

When is the design process finished? Is it finished when the designer hands the concept over to the manufacturer? Is it finished when the product rolls off the factory floor? When it finds its way to the store? Usually in school our projects are hypothetical and do not include a stage where the objects we design are really used. Because of this I think we tend to see the end of the design process as one of these three events. I am not so sure this is the case. When any piece of art enters the world it is not finished. People who read it, see it, hear it, touch it and use it give it new meaning and change it constantly. For this reason I don’t see design as a process of using user research to generate a product then returning a finished product to the user. Design is a collaborative process with the audience/ users.

A designer benefits greatly from seeing the client as a collaborator. One reason for this is the issue brought up in an earlier class about how to design for someone in another culture. If we look at it as working with that culture rather than designing for them, then we approach the problem by getting to know our collaborator. We spend time together, ask and answer questions, and listen. It would never work in a collaboration to do research about your partner instead of meeting him and coming up with ideas together. Thinking in this way can enable a designer to work with clients of different cultures, backgrounds and abilities with ease and understanding. Users also become collaborators by giving products meaning. When a product enters the marketplace it carries a lot of baggage. The associations people make, the history of the product, the public’s knowledge of the designer of company, etc. all shape the products meaning. An object takes on all of this meaning while it is in the world and the people who use it, critique it and observe it become additional authors.

It doesn’t really matter if we believe that clients and consumers have authorship when they use our products in new ways and see unexpected meaning in them. They will continue on their way and we on ours. However, like in critiques in class, we benefit so much from the collective wisdom of our classmates and collaborators. The more people who are included in these exchanges the more we learn. People from different cultures, of different ages and abilities, with different backgrounds and skills can all offer new ways of seeing. If we benefit from the opinions of fifteen classmates in crit think of the benefit of six billion opinions. The more universally accessible our products, the more of the world’s poor and disenfranchised we reach out too the greater the opportunity for growth. Every project can be a collaboration, and therefore present the opportunity to include new people in discussion and the exchange of ideas.

Friday, November 21, 2008

FineArtDesign I An Opportunity for Good

Sweeping social change requires revolution. For a return there has to be an investment and when it comes to taking care of the poor, the sick and even the planet these investments can be hard to come by. The demand by the rich and powerful for avant-garde art has never ceased. Throughout history fine art has been a medium of change. Each society rebels against the one before through art. The ideas of the avant-garde can become the sweeping, globally available, mainstream ideas of their followers. For this reason the crossroads between art and design, however big, wide, and wavering the gray line, can be the birthplace of massive global scale change. On the other hand, it can easily become a place of decadence, escapism and impracticality. I believe it is important for designers to see their work in the context of global social issues no matter how they identify and label their work, who buys and collects their work or where it is shown.

An example of a time when this awareness fell apart was during the early part of the 20th century when the wealthiest families in America invested millions of dollars into their summer homes in Newport, RI. Just a short distance from here we can go and see incredible, elaborate decadent homes that contain some of the finest pieces of limited production and custom furniture in the world from that time. While these houses were occupied America fell into a deep economic depression during which unprecedented numbers of people were unemployed and in poverty. Viewing these homes raised my ethical questions about art to a new level. When we design expensive, limited production pieces while all around the world people are going without their basic needs met, what kind of a world are we creating? It is possible what we are creating can be a better world.

I believe that used correctly even very expensive limited production work has positive social implications. There is money available to the wealthy even when the rest of the world is poor and the explorations of the wealthy can lead to discovery that will benefit everyone. Sunjars are a good example. What is now a kitchy, expensive gift shop object has large environmental and social applications. By using the technology as a novelty for the rich designer Tobias Wong has made available photoluminescent lighting technology for other applications that are more need based. Another example is the Segway which is largely useless except as novelty, but it’s mainstream novelty appeal led to development of iBot, a revolutionary wheelchair. Unlike the Newport Mansions, in these examples devices with the potential to do good were born from a fine art/ expensive limited production design object.

Fine art design has the power to demand new developments in technology and make the development of new technology economically viable as well as the power to present new ideology to the very wealthy and powerful. These characteristics make it a very powerful tool for the conscious and a dangerous weapon for the ignorant. It is imperative we learn to use it well.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Patricia Moore I Research Revolution

In my essay two weeks ago I focused on the idea that designers have the tools within our reach to design for people with whom we have shared experiences and with those we do not. I emphasized that we can ask questions, spend time together and use the powerful communication tools available to us today to reach these goals even at very large distances. While these research tools can be very effective, as we explored in class, it can still be difficult to relate to someone with very different abilities or cultural background. Is there anything we as designers can do to better understand the needs of a more enigmatic user? In 1985 designer and gerontologist Patricia Moore underwent a dramatic transformation to explore this question and her work undeniably benefited.

Moore is an accomplished designer who has worked with a comprehensive list of major clients including Baxter Healthcare, General Electric, 3M and At&t and has served on advisory boards of dozens of major foundations. She is most known for her work with OXO developing their line of universal kitchenware products. Moore is one of the major leaders of the Universal Design movement, emphasizing equitable use for people with all kinds of physical and cognitive differences.

In order to design for the elderly, Moore’s particular passion, she went to medical school to become a gerontologist. Additionally, in 1985 she took a revolutionary step. Using makeup and prostheses she transformed herself into an eighty-five year old woman. She spent weeks venturing out into the world every day not only appearing elderly but wearing splints and prostheses which caused her to have stiff and painful joints, altered vision and poor hearing. Some of her time was documented on video and she wrote a book exploring the role of design and access in shaping the experience of aging. She gained insight it would be impossible to learn from focus groups and statistics by actually living as someone else. Her work pioneered the use of experiential product research, challenged our conceptions of with whom we can empathize and identify and brought incredibly valuable insight to the experience of aging and the specific needs of an aging population which is steadily growing.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Inclusion By Design I Universal Design and Civil Rights

“I see the work of inclusion as the last frontier of desegregation. If you read the brief from Brown vs. the Board of Ed. the board of education argued that if we let blacks be integrated the next thing you know is that we’ll let people with disabilities be integrated.” 
-Joe Petner

Easy. It is so easy for designers to see the world as a market for consumers and producers. It is so easy to design for the group with the most purchasing power, to analyze data utilizing exclusion as a marketing strategy. It is so easy to begin by designing for our own demographic group, basing our design decisions on our own preferences. Statistics keep our focus on household products for women and sporting goods for boys. By designing only for the wealthiest, healthiest, most statistically normative groups we create a world that excludes everyone who falls outside the small world of our own experiences.

In class someone asked if we could ever design for people in other cultures. I believe designers should treat every project and every user group as if we know nothing about them; because it is only by abandoning our assumptions that we can address real needs. We do not need to look beyond our borders or even outside our own small community to see blatant examples of designers’ complicity in civil rights violations and human suffering. Problems caused not by intentional malice and neglect but by a dangerous combination of market driven thought and ignorance of how to design for people whose experiences we do not share. Of course, anyone who knows me knows where this is going. Disability.

This week I had the privilege of attending a screening of a really great film by Dan Habib called Including Samuel. This film is a brief look at inclusive education for people with disabilities, particularly focused on Habib’s son Samuel, who has cerebral palsy. It addresses inclusion as a civil rights issue. The film asks us to overcome prejudice, discrimination and low expectations. Betsey McNamara, Samuel’s mom talks about discovering that Samuel had a disability. She said, “All the things you imagine for your child are things I was afraid about. How could he run around the playground and play kickball when he can’t run? How can he yak on the phone with his teenage friends when he has trouble talking? How could he get a full education and go to college when he can’t hold a pencil?” I believe the answers to all of these questions lie within the power of design. Samuel’s determination and will, his warmth and personality will do most of the work, but by designing products and environments that include him, such as better wheelchairs and schools with equitable access designers can give Samuel the freedom and opportunity to be a doctor or an astronaut. It is not enough to adapt Samuel to the world, we stand to gain so much by adapting the world for people like Samuel. They can open our minds and teach us new ways of communicating, new ways of learning and new ways of seeing the world.

However, to design for people with disabilities requires a leap. If we have never been disabled we can’t understand the disability experience. We can’t know how it feels to have to wait forty-five minutes for someone who can operate the wheelchair lift. To be stared at while we use it. We can’t know how empowering, not imprisoning a wheelchair can be. Or can we? By truly taking the time to ask questions and listen to the answers we can design products and services that will really work for the people who use them. While this is obviously necessary when designing across cultures and abilities, it is equally important when we design for our own demographic. We can never assume we know best what someone else needs or wants, and as designers it is our obligation to explore the needs of the people we are trying to design for.

I’d like to add this thought from Joe Petner, the principal of a pioneering inclusive school: “I see the work of inclusion as the last frontier of desegregation. If you read the brief from Brown vs. the Board of Ed. the board of education argued that if we let blacks be integrated the next thing you know is that we’ll let people with disabilities be integrated.” So this week, while we celebrate a monumental step forward for civil rights let’s not forget how far we still have to come and how much we still need to learn. For people with disabilities, universal design can be a vehicle for social activism and the achievement of long overdue civil rights. Design for everyone. It’s easy.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Diapers and Dads I Design and Gender Roles

The product design process almost always includes early on an analysis of the target user group. Designers pore over focus group data, interviews, surveys and observation to determine the needs of their market. In this crucial step determinations are made that will shape everything from form to function to marketing of a product. It is also in this phase that the seed of exclusionary and prejudicial design is planted. Too many industries rely on stereotype and exclusion as a focus of their design strategy beginning with this early critical step in the design process.

For example, today Products for babies are still synonymous with products for women; this entirely excludes loving and committed fathers. I would argue that the constant bombardment of images equating parenting with mothering actually causes fathers to feel unnecessary and therefore to be less committed. These products are laden with centuries of history and meaning since the beginning of industrialization when women were obligated to be the primary caregiver of their children. This history burdens every user and potential user. Today, men who opt to be stay at home dads are considered emasculated and they are excluded from the supportive information and industry which claims to support babies but is really only geared to mothers. The designers and marketers of the baby product industry are partially responsible for shaping generations of men who feel their only responsibility or connection to their families is to earn the money to pay for material marketed to their wives.

The Huggies website has dozens of photos of babies and mothers but not one image of a father. There are pages entitled “mom-to-mom tips,” and “I’m pregnant” but not a man to be found. The Johnson’s website has one page about fathering. Babies‘r’us has a “Mom’s favorites” category but no “dad’s favorites.” What’s going on? Our society bemoans the uninvolved role of fathers every day, but each of these companies marketing alienates fathers and further embeds the perception that a father is a breadwinner while a mother is the one who truly connects with baby. One outraged dad expressed this feeling eloquently on his Blog “Daddy Brain.” He is outraged that his commitment goes unrecognized by the companies his income supports. Working mothers are undoubtedly burdened by the insistence on historic gender roles designed into these products as well.

Not only the target audience and marketing designs of products, but also the forms of the designs themselves perpetuate this unfair gender bias. Diaper bags are almost exclusively designed for women. On there are 636 designer diaper bags for women and only 106 “Daddy Diaper Bags.” Evenflo products use very similar curvy forms to women’s cosmetics and shampoo packaging and utilize pastel color palettes, typically associated with femininity (the problem of boy and girl colors is another issue for another day). These products form language and color shout out to dads “this is not for you.” Companies don’t design based on focus group data from fathers, nor do they use gender neutral packaging and color concepts.

According to USA Today “Many fathers hold the misconception that small children do not need their influence and that they can just step in when the kids are older.” It seems only natural that men would feel their role in caring for a baby is obsolete when baby care products are designed exclusively for women. The exclusion by design of men from parenting is a tragedy which research shows is detrimental to our children and society in every way. In this instance designers could positively shape family structures and parent child relationships merely by broadening their definitions of their target groups and designing with greater sensitivity to the ever-changing definitions of family.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Functionalism l Style and Substance

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, Of all things physical and metaphysical,
 Of all things human and all things super-human,
 Of all true manifestations of the head, Of the heart, Of the soul,
 That the life is recognizable in its expression, That form ever follows function. This is the law.”
-- Louis Sullivan, 1896

Louis Sullivan’s 1896 Declaration that “form ever follows function” was a guiding principle when the practice of industrial design was born. The path of these ideals leads us through confusing terrain. What began as a largely political approach to design transformed into a practical approach and again into a style. Today designers can be prisoners of functionalism-the-style and the true meaning of functionalism appears lost, if it ever was known. Movements opposing functionalism-the-style often end in disaster. I want to know how we got into this mess and how we can get out. To find the answers I will explore William Morris’ functionalism, the transition to functionalism as a style and works that rebelled against it. Those designers who have challenged functionalism illustrate an important point, it is not enough to challenge the style of functionalism; we as designers need to reinvent the wheel by turning to an understanding of functionalism inspired by nature and untarnished by over a century of use.

In the beginning functionalism was the idea that “form follows function. Style follows use. This is the Fundamental concept. Its practice means that every work of design will have a functionally appropriate individual form or structural gesture” (Adams). William Morris was one of the earliest to explore these ideas. He pioneered the Arts and Crafts movement and wrote extensively about design as a social practice. “Morris clearly revealed the structural, materials and functional properties of his furniture designs and two dimensional organic wallpaper patterns to signify concrete, objective truths about how these objects are made and how they are used” (Weingarden 9). At its inception functionalism was a social concept having to do with the idea that all the objects we use should be honest to their construction, both reverential and available to the proletariat who create them.

In the mid 1930’s functionalism began to adopt a new meaning in its transition from ideology to style. The Bauhaus designers in the Weimar began a new movement led by Walter Gropius that used the mantra that form follows function for more practical and economic conceptions of function than Morris. The Bauhaus designers insisted that design be honest about manufacture and commercially available just as Morris’ had written, but they were the first to explore mass production. With this idea came the opportunity to incorporate the machine in new ways. Gropius wrote “Freeing the machine from its lack of creative spirit and in the process making the ‘useless’ useful” (Weingarden 10). This subtly marks the beginning of the end for Morris’ functionalism, which emphasized forms honest to their production but developed by human hands. Here, the machine is given creative authority. Gropius takes the burden of form from the designer and declares that the machines of manufacture have creative control. From this point on minimalist style slowly replaced the persistent striving for objects that truly satisfy functional, social and emotional needs.

As is always the case in history, every movement inspires a counterrevolution desperate to turn the status quo upside down, in this case the revolution is postmodernism. Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenmann emerged as strong voices against the minimalism of functionalism-the-style. They see themselves primarily as artists and subscribe to the belief that function can and will follow form. They aspire to break ground by developing forms and seeking the manufacturing capabilities to achieve them. Unfortunately, their work is riddled with problems. Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall is strikingly beautiful but it caused major problems for its neighbors because of glare and had to undergo a costly sandblasting operation to be able to exist safely in its environment (USA Today). Peter Eisenmann’s House VI was designed as a deconstructivist project in which the house was designed by breaking up a grid. The clients lost everything when the project went over budget and resulted in an almost uninhabitable house (Russell). These projects suggest that a counterrevolutionary response to functionalism will not allow designers to break free of the dogma of minimalism without sacrificing too much function. There has to be another way.

When the endless back and forth of revolution and counterrevolution can’t get the job done, it’s necessary to go back to beginning. The moment we went wrong was the moment in which designers relinquished authority over the form of their designs to machines. Satisfying the social, functional, emotional and ergonomic requirements of a project and developing exciting forms need not be mutually exclusive. For inspiration on how to do this the best example is nature. Nothing in the natural world exists by accident. Billions of years of trial and error have led every cell and stone to how it is today. Either despite or because of the fact that the form of every living and non-living natural element is determined by function there exist in nature forms of breathtaking beauty and complexity. Long before the industrial revolution humans began to develop tools based on what they saw in the world around them. They were inspired by the tooth and nail of animals and they began to cut stone and sharpened sticks to achieve an edge in mastering nature. As I explore in my Time Capsule and Lighting timelines, the most groundbreaking human inventions exist in natural forms as well. Billions of years before we mastered fire, let alone developed synthetic photoluminescence, bioluminescent organisms roamed the earth. Long before humans began to record our history for the generations fossils developed deep beneath the oceans to reveal their secret histories to us all these years later. These natural organisms are not rectangular and minimal, but they are beautiful because of the tasks they are “designed” to do, not in spite of them. When a designer sets out to create a product they may feel an artificial pull between settling on the most basic form needed to get the job done, or throwing function out the window and focusing on an exciting and dynamic form study. This is a false dichotomy. By drawing inspiration from the natural processes that drive invention we can use our quest for function to explore dynamic, exciting and unique forms, creating products with the visual impact of a Frank Gehry building and the functional integrity of a Bauhaus chair.

Works Cited

-Adams, David. "Organic Functionalism." Waldorf Research Institute. Waldorf Research Institute. .
-Loos, Adolf, and Adolf Opel. Ornament and Crime : Selected Essays. Trans. Michael Mitchell. New York: Ariadne P,
-"New L.A. Concert Hall Raises Temperatures of Neighbors." USA Today 24 Feb. 2004.
-Russell, Barry. "Peter Eisenmann's House VI: The Client's Response- Book Reviews." 1995. BNet. 23 Oct. 2008 .
-Weingarden, Lauren S. "Aesthetics Politicized: William Morriss to the Bauhaus." Journal of Architectural Education
38 (1985): 8-13.

Saturday, October 18, 2008