In order to deal effectively with many contemporary issues of environmental degradation and social disparity, we must radically re-think our notions of material culture. Potentially, the design profession can make significant contributions in this area through the development of design solutions that challenge precedents and demonstrate alternative possibilities. Such a direction requires a rethinking in design education and design practice, as well as new understandings of product aesthetics and our notions of ‘good’ design.

The focus on the definition of product appearance, in both the industrial design profession and design education, renders product aesthetics hollow and superficial. This preoccupation prevents industrial design from evolving into an authentic, substantive discipline that effectively addresses important issues of our time. For example, one of our most pressing contemporary concerns that is not being effectively addressed in the field of product design and manufacturing is sustainability. Other concerns, not unrelated to sustainability, include notions of meaning, identity and culture associated with the design and production of our material objects. The dominance of fashion-oriented, essentially trivial aesthetic definitions suggests a barrenness of thinking, a relinquishment of creativity, and a replacement of originality by bland, market led, ‘safe’ solutions.

Design and Diamonds.
Some years ago, when I was studying engineering, I heard it said that the majority of the world’s diamond production was for industrial applications. There are huge markets for industrial diamonds – for cutting tools, drill bits, abrasive wheels and grinding tools. diamond_cullinan_1_south_africa_1980_tThese low-grade diamonds, which have no special optical qualities, are crushed into grits of various sizes. Apparently, because of the high demand, and the relative rarity of gem quality diamonds, many of the mineral processing systems have been geared towards the production of industrial diamonds. In this process the ore is crushed to the size of coarse sand and the dense diamond grit is separated out. With such a system there is no possibility of finding another Hope Diamond or Great Star of Africa – they are simply eliminated by the process.

Obviously, we need industrial diamonds, but we also need the Hope and the Great Star of Africa. The Great Star of Africa is about as close to a diamond-embedded industrial disc cutter as chalk is to cheese. Industrial diamonds are valued for instrumental reasons – they are a means to some other end – they are valued for their utility. They are used, they wear out and they are replaced. The Great Star of Africa is valued for how it shines, how the light plays through its facets to inspire sheer awe – but it is totally useless in terms of function. The Great Star of Africa is not about function, its about poetry and beauty and wonder. It is an end in and of itself. It has intrinsic value, it never wears out and it is irreplaceable.

In some ways industrial design – in both education and practice – is not unlike industrial diamond processing. It tends to emphasize the production of competent, practical and useful design solutions that conform to current norms and work within established notions of aesthetics, manufacturing, economics and utility. Accordingly, our mass-produced products are generally useful, ergonomic, convenient, economic, and have a pleasant appearance.

However, there is also a need to generate solutions that defy current norms, that challenge convention, that re-conceive what design, production and products might be and, importantly, to create solutions that inspire. To do this we must ensure that such solutions are not automatically rejected or eliminated by the processes we have put in place, in both design education and design practice. For original thinking to flourish in design we must value and nurture the unfamiliar, the atypical and even the perplexing, in addition to technical competency and design proficiency. Inevitably, creative insights and ideas that are of lasting value will be rare and hard won, but they are urgently needed in today’s industrial design milieu.

csm_Canton_Sottsass_01_3085c3fa2cIt is important to acknowledge that, over the past century, there have been many inspiring examples of design that have challenged prevailing stereotypes and stimulated and influenced subsequent designers. Historically, the work of Theo van Doesburg, Gerrit Reitveld and the De Stijl group in The Netherlands from 1917 and of the Bauhaus designers in Germany, such as Marcel Breuer and Gunta Stölzl, in the period 1919-1933, had an enormous effect on 20th century design, and their legacy is still highly influential. More recently, the work of the Memphis group in Italy during the 1980’s had profound effects on design education and practice. In their time, these groups were highly innovative and groundbreaking; they were also of their time. The issues and agendas they were responding to are not our issues and agendas. Today, we are facing new challenges associated with the globalization of industrial capitalism, the environment, national and trans-national socio-economic inequities, major technological developments, and so on. While incremental developments that address these issues are important and necessary, it is also essential to encourage ideas that break with convention, that test preconceptions and, potentially, re-frame our notions of product design and post-industrial material culture. The ‘Droog’ designers, again in The Netherlands, are dealing with some of these contemporary issues in innovative ways that lie somewhere between art and product design, between clarity and ambiguity, between seriousness and wry wit. It is quite appropriate that many of the Droog designs defy existing classifications because part of the process of rethinking the current place and role of industrial design is to reconsider its boundaries and scope.

Preconceptions in Design.
When the aesthetic definition of a product is regarded as a primary objective, in and of itself, we must consider from whence our aesthetic decisions are derived. Personal experience, memory, notions of taste and conventions of beauty are all sources. However, it is these very conventions that have influenced, configured and, to an extent, determined personal experience, memory and taste. Here then, is the paradox of aesthetic definition. It is informed by convention – our conventional notions of beauty and taste. But it is this very influence of convention that results in the endless regurgitation of variations on a theme and imprisons product design in its own cage of introversion. The derivations and repetitions that result disregard and deny the necessity of innovation that lies at the heart of aesthetic expression. While many contemporary products may have the attributes of being economical, convenient and pleasant to look at, they also tend to be monotonously mundane, inherently destructive of the environment, representative of grossly inequitable employment practices, culturally damaging in their blanket distribution, and ethically questionable in terms of their marketing. These observations have an honorable precedent. Over twenty years ago the design critic Stephen Bayley spoke of the ‘plateau of mutual pastiche’ that determined the appearance of so many consumer products.

Rather than viewing aesthetics as a direct aim, it can also be considered as an outcome of an approach to product design that has different objectives. Industrial design can then focus on the meanings of material culture and thus develop and evolve. Ironically, in doing so, aesthetic definition will also evolve, unconstrained by the customs and precedents of product definition. In other words, aesthetics will begin to be more profoundly related to the whole of what a product is. Consequently, the aesthetic definition of a product, when derived from a different source will without doubt challenge current norms. It will find its own place as an outcome rather than an all-consuming aim. In doing so, product design can respond creatively to the critical issues of our times in ways that are thoughtful, considered and inspiring.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968The rejection both of ‘convention’ and of ‘aesthetics as a direct aim’ is not, however, a rejection of history and experience, in fact quite the opposite. History and personal and cultural experience can be embraced as providing important insights and nourishment for product definition. A nourishment that is urgently required if we are to effectively address contemporary issues in ways that overcome fads and fashions, and which are rooted in meaningful and enduring human and cultural values. This must start in our design schools and in the ways we educate our students.

Avant-garde artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Richard Long, the composer John Cage, and perhaps also the contemporary architect Frank Gehry, demonstrate that true creativity can be challenging, difficult and frequently misunderstood. It is often commercially unsuccessful and frequently, at least initially, ridiculed and dismissed. Duchamp submitted the piece known as ‘Fountain’ to an exhibition in New York in 1917 that was jury-free and open to all works of art. ‘Fountain’, a white-porcelain urinal that Duchamp had purchased from a supplier and signed R.Mutt, was, nevertheless, rejected from the exhibition. Despite this, it has become an icon of the 20th century and has caused people to reassess their ideas about art. Cage’s musical composition 4’33” of 1952, “for any instrument or groups of instruments” has been equally controversial and confusing and is still a cause for comment and ridicule. This piece has three movements and each movement is marked ‘tacet’, indicating that the performer is to be silent throughout the movement. As Duchamp provokes questions about visual art, Cage causes us to reassess our preconceptions about music. Both demonstrated that new forms were possible that addressed important aspects of being human and that were highly creative, original and inspiring. Similarly, the works of sculptor Richard Long and architect Frank Gehry are challenging and, perhaps, sometimes bewildering. But such contributions allow us to see anew; they disrupt our comfort and test our attitudes. There is a need for such work in product design, before the excesses of our current preoccupations bury us alive in waste, pollution, and sheer banality.

The Need for an Avant-Garde in Product Design.
Over the course of the last century, products were promoted as ‘new’ and ‘leading edge’ based on two major features – aesthetics and technology; and this is still the case. The first encompasses the latest in fashions, styling and colours and is the primary focus of the industrial designer. The second includes such things as features, functional attributes and gadgetry and is informed more by aspects of engineering. Neither has given us a lasting and meaningful material culture. Instead, they have contributed to the unsustainable, destructive characteristics of our current design and production approaches. csm_WiggleSideChair_Gehry_01_99c944d4dcWe need an avant-garde because time passes, the world changes, new issues come to the fore and need to be addressed. What might have been appropriate and acceptable then is not necessarily appropriate and acceptable now. This is especially true if, over time, our ways of doing things are revealed to have damaging consequences. Fashion and much technological innovation is often superficial, trivial and invariably wasteful. It is time to establish new criteria for product design, new criteria for ‘progress’ in design and for our notions of ‘good’ design. An avant-garde based in meaningful and pressing contemporary issues could provide the impetus for new, urgently needed thinking and directions in product design; an impetus that would rouse the discipline from its current stasis.

In order for new ideas to be meaningful, innovative and well grounded, designers must be educated in issues that go beyond the traditional boundaries of design. Philosophy, historical and contemporary issues, current affairs, and discussions that stimulate critical thinking can all be brought to bear on how we re-configure our notions of products, industrial design and the creation and meanings of material culture in today’s world.

An example here might serve to expose our presumptions and prejudices. Our traditional, socially embedded understandings of business, growth and capitalism are, in fact, relatively recent. Industrial capitalism grew from the British cotton industry during the Industrial Revolution and is, therefore, only a few hundred years old. The distinguishing feature of this system, which now seems so normal and unquestionable, is that the surpluses of production began to be used to expand productive capacity itself. This gave us the notion of continual industrial growth, and the corollary of continually expanding consumption, disposable products, resource depletion, pollution and waste. We are living with the consequences of this today and are seemingly unable to free ourselves from its destructive grip. Before the rise of capitalism, however, the surpluses of production were used for other purposes. They were invested in economically unproductive endeavors, which, viewed from our current frame of reference, seems both incredible and ludicrous. The great European cathedrals are one legacy of this, which, incidentally, still fulfill an important function today.


This example illustrates that what, today, we might regard as preposterous was once perfectly acceptable and natural. That is not to suggest we should somehow try to return to a pre-capitalist, medieval time. It does, however, allow us to see that existing norms can change, that alternatives are possible, and urgently needed given our current rates of ecological destruction and the gross social inequities associated with our today’s modus operandi. Critical thinking and the challenging of precedents and standards must begin to pre-figure the design process, and become more commonplace and more substantive than is generally the case today. Designers will still have the important task of translating these ideas into form, but ultimately, it is the strength of the ideas that is important for the evolution of a lasting, meaningful and more benign material culture.



Originally published in The Design Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2, ISSN 1460-6925, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot, UK,
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