Opinion: Good design, designing tomorrow
27 March 2013
Professor Ted Snell, Chair of the Visual Arts Board, considers the claim that well-designed artifacts can change our lives.
One of the key criteria that make us human is our ability to design and fabricate objects that enable us to engage more efficiently and productively with our world.
Even a cursory scan of our own lives reveals many significant examples from our earliest memories to the most recent: from the wooden cart my dad made me as a toddler, which enabled me to get around efficiently and with only my brother’s effort expended, to the computer on which I am writing this essay. Both were relevant at the time, hence useful and intelligible, practical and pertinent to my needs, and prescient in that they offer a glimpse of a future of locomotion, and engagement with ideas across time and space.
This leads to the fundamental question for designers and artists: how do we design and make artifacts that fulfill this quintessential role in our lives, that change the world, as we know it? As agents of change, designers seek ways to improve, integrate and re-imagine the objects and spaces that shape how we live.
I want to interrogate the process of design and its evaluation, and explore how design can be taught to enhance and encourage a vibrant creative industry. This is important at a time when government, the community and the design, crafts and arts professions are exploring how they might work in tandem to promote a design culture in this country.
The mechanics of the creative process have fascinated thinkers for centuries. Their answers oscillate from dogged hard work and practical hands-on engagement to the divine spark of genius that reveals answers ‘out of sync’ with their times and only truly understood decades or centuries later.
My encapsulated analysis of the design process (risky I admit for being so cursory) suggests that making is a process that is a series of micro changes undertaken by the hand, directed by the brain, which constantly re-tools it through data entry, trial and modification.
The moment of creative insight and innovation comes when the entire body is engaged in the creative activity. When the brain and our senses are electrified by the possibility through the process of physically engaging with our material environment and manipulating, re-forming and re-shaping it. A sense of wonder or expectation drives the maker on to see what can be created.
Through this process we create artifacts that pass in Plato’s words from ‘from not being into being’ to meet a contemporary need while offering an insight into the world as it might be.
The result is beautiful, functional objects and artworks that tell us a great deal about who we are, about the environment in which we live and, most importantly, about the world we aspire to create.
How we interact with these things is one way of assessing their success as good design, not just as functional aids but also as crucial and significant objects that improve and bring joy to everyday activities.
In June 2009, I opened an exhibition of F!NK Design at Object in Sydney. It was timely because just one month before I had reason to consider why certain objects are so important in our lives when my son decided he was moving to live in Germany. He arrived home to pick up the accumulated ‘stuff’ he had strewn throughout our home over the past 24 years and on several occasions we spied him wandering through the house doing a recce on our possessions. Finally he confessed he wanted our jug. ‘Which jug?’ we asked. ‘The Jug!’ he said.
Of course, there is only one jug, it’s the jug we all know, the quintessential jug, the form that now acts as the default for the concept of ‘jugness’ in our consciousness, the F!NK jug!
We went into conference to discuss the request and thought about it long and hard until we finally decided that we couldn’t let him have our jug, it’s too important to us, we use it every day, it was a gift from a friend, it is part of our lives in a significant way, so we bought him a new one instead and he went off to his new life ecstatically happy.
I tell this story not to bore you with the details of my family life, but because that example goes a long way to explaining why good design is so important in our lives:
- Good design is a fundamental part of our daily lives, bringing enjoyment and pleasure to the simple, repetitive tasks we engage in constantly, such as pouring water into a glass.
- Good design becomes a part of us and we can’t give it up, just as my wife and I were unable to part with our F!NK Jug.
- Good design helps us define who we are and how we operate in the world. It gives us confidence and a sense of who we want to be.
- Good design makes us feel alive and triggers those synaptic sparks that makes us conscious of our world and comfortable within it.
- Good design is sexy and makes us feel that we’re players, in the know, fingers on the pulse, vital and aware.
- Good design is also a statement about caring, about consideration and respect.
That’s why my son wanted our jug, why we couldn’t give it to him and why we bought him one to take with him to Germany.
Dieter Rams, the Grand Seigneur of design at Braun for three decades, made his own list of ‘Ten Principles of Good Design’, in his book, Weniger, aber besser (Less, but better), in 1995. For Rams, good design should be: innovative, useful, understandable, honest, unobtrusive, long-lived, consistent, environmentally friendly and be as little design as possible.
The final thrust of Rams polemic 15 years ago is particularly relevant as we move into the twenty-first century. Green, sustainable, resource-efficient design has become the key factor in how we now assess the quality of design and append the appellation ‘good design’.
This will be increasingly important as we move into a world where equity, integrity and responsibility become the touchstones of communal action.
In this changing economic environment, ‘good design’ also exploits new technologies and relies on the intellectual property in content delivered on various platforms to build wealth.
The etymology of the word ‘design’ is from the mid-fifteenth century, meaning ‘to mark out or devise’, derived from the Latin designare. ‘Culture’ derives from the Latin cultura, ‘to tend, guard, cultivate, till’. But that etymology of ‘design’ is still very current because it continues to describe the environment in which things grow, and the complex mix of experiences and conditions that shape who we are.
Objects and jewellery, designed and fabricated body adornments are ‘marked out or devised’ within this environment and so they are a reflection of us, of how we think and what we aspire to be.
That is why design and the work of artists is so important, because it can lead these ethical debates. The objects and spaces we create encapsulate these theories and will be studied in the future when others look back, centuries from now, to understand us—just as we look back at the tombs of Egypt and China and the treasures they contain.
So how will we be seen and what kind of a community can we create through inculcating a design culture in our educational institutions? Recent reports from Stamford and Harvard universities acknowledge the centrality of the arts in human endeavour.
The reports reinforce the importance of the visual and performing arts in fostering their student’s ability to think imaginatively, to be creative risk-takers, and as the Stanford University report, ‘A Case for the Arts at Stanford’ so poetically adds, ‘… to move gracefully through a world of rapid change.’
Plans at the University of Western Australia recognise the arts as fundamental to the education of a fully rounded human beings who can ‘… contribute to society as it undergoes further transformation’.
The proposal to have design as one of only four degree streams (along with Arts, Commerce and Science) shows the importance the university places on creating an educational environment in which ideas are interrogated, challenged and re-imagined.
With the requirement that all employees in every profession must now be creative and innovative thinkers, it is important that all students have access to this way of thinking and viewing the world.
The visual arts enrich, enhance and transform by teaching us to be agile, self-motivated and visually adept, so we can solve problems in creative ways and respond to changing conditions with a range of new and traditional skills.
As I said earlier, designers are by definition ‘agents of change’, constantly seeking ways to improve, integrate and re-imagine the ideas, objects and spaces that shape how we live. These are precisely the skills 21st century students require as they ‘…move gracefully through a world of rapid change’. It is why a degree in design is a fundamental building block of a vibrant and relevant community.
Edited version of Professor Ted Snell’s paper for the Jewellers and Metalsmiths Group of Australia 14th National Conference in Perth, 9 - 11 April 2010.
Following an evaluation of the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy in August 2010, the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts has funded more widely and deeply into the new generation of object, craft and design practitioners, including supporting the new Australian Design Alliance; the Australia India Design Platform with RMIT; and the ACDC Design Catalyst Forum Gallery at the Design Triennial, Asia Pacific.