Saturday, May 28, 2011


between body and information

What is the information that shapes design? Our information age has changed how we think about the world and interact with it, but has it also changed how we think about design - how we approach design and perceive it? Our sophisticated portable gadgets - phones, pods and pads - have created a world that has information at our fingertips - literally. These electronic wonders make the 1950 ‘Dick Tracy’-vision of a phone-watch look crude and limited - truly comic - although it is very likely that this guessed gadget has been the inspiration for much of what is so familiar today. Just as many a truth is said in jest, so our comics have frequently framed futures and scenarios yet to be.

It is the fact of futures that they are unknown. Even with the promise of the cliché ‘ten-year’ scientific solution, nothing is certain – well, nothing other than ‘death and taxes’ as the cynic says. While our future remains in much the same visionary vein today as it always has, and remains open to speculation, our present is more certain as ‘today’ – or ‘Now.’ The observation is becoming commonplace: today folk walk down streets paying more attention to their phones, pods and pads than they give to the environment or to others. The image is surreal: man connected to others, (or otherwise: it could just be a game or an image being toyed with), via digital electronics that supercede personal intimacy and all other concerns - indeed, taking over in importance from any physical encounter or recognition. The ‘I and Thou’ relationship that Martin Buber wrote so beautifully about is merely an insignificant aside - perhaps an angry glance - if it is enacted at all by a distracted eye movement.

The situation reminds one of David Green’s prediction of the electronic world becoming the central hearth, a message illustrated in The Electric Aborigine, 1971; and of Coop Himmelbrau’s envisaged White Suit, 1969, where the electronic world is shown as another skin carried on the body, albeit it rather crude by today’s equipment that does have such additions available, e.g. 3D glasses, night vision goggles, and WiFi gadgets. These forty-year-old images can be seen as metaphors predicting our circumstance today. Even with their rough rawness, the intent of the message is clear: (see Architecture as the Everyday, p.p. 199 and 204). Are visions the splash in the water that inevitably sets up ripples that grow with time, expanding inexorably into other eras that are inevitably changed by the stimulus of these distant disturbances? Ivan Illich spoke of change in this manner. Do we create and define our futures today with a subtlety we know little about? The self-conscious efforts to show future possibilities in our time as more than metaphor, e.g. as boldly seen in Disney’s 1950’s House of the Future and in numerous ‘cars of the future,’ all carry a certain irony in their being possible in the present. The completion of the ‘future’ concept in the period ‘Now,’ only fixes this idea and outcome in time, thus ensuring that it has no future other than in stimulating further developments and changes in other directions. If ‘our future can be now’ - a promotional theme sometimes seen on advertisements sponsoring things with so-called ‘futuristic’ identities or even credit cards - then, quite simply, it is not our future, but it may influence it in one way or another, either positively or negatively.

Our world is being intercepted by clever information-seeking tools that are constantly being ‘upgraded’ almost on a monthly basis. Information may take on a variety of shades. All the data is ‘information,’ but it may be for learning, for entertainment, for simple amusement, or just a diversion – or more; or otherwise. Digital accessibility has no definition for the management of its bits and pieces: its bytes and pixels. They, like the themes that the comic books explore, can be used for good or evil. In spite of this, our world has the need for these electronic objects to be ‘designed.’ Here the only brief for the embodiment of the clever or ‘smart’ information-seeking circuits, is that something has to contain it. It may not even have to be a good fit in relation to the size of the electronics. The story about the beautiful hi-tech black box being nearly empty has been repeated frequently. Empty space is irrelevant. This singular and most critical necessity is enclosure and its presentation. This demands that attention be given to a complex set of ephemeral needs involving conceptions, perceptions and expectations. There are other requirements for our portable electronic things too, but these have to do with their relationship to the physical body rather than the mind and emotions. The object has to be capable of being held, manipulated, read by the body, and stored on the body, but these seem to be secondary to the look and feel of the phone/pod/pad.

Industrial design has shaped and moulded many items in our brave new world that have had no precedent, including lights, microwaves, vacuum cleaners, computers, sewing machines, and telephones - and much, much more. It is interesting to note that the Bauhaus was involved in designing objects that had precedents - chairs, tables, rugs, lights.  Its challenge was primarily the use of new materials and new production techniques. The telephone involved both. The classic telephone ‘Model 302’ designed by Henry Dreyfuss in 1937 was shaped in bakelite for the hold of the hand, the ease of the ear, and the fit of the face. It was thought of as something that could be - and had to be - carried and touched, both as parts and in its entirety. The wholeness of the design related to a set of functions involving a primary physical quality that integrated and involved various parts of the body. Interaction with the object entertained a multiplicity of body parts and gestures in space and on varying scales. Yet there is an unusual divergence in our time.

Our p, p, p’s are different. Various materials are used for these new objects that are designed primarily for the hand and the eye – for fine movements. The ergonomics relate to the more delicate scale of fingers, touch and sight, and such insubstantial issues as daylight and brightness, rather than any grand gesture or movement of the whole body in space. Design today takes on the role of an interface between the fine body parts and the information systems it encases. The analogy that sees these things as ‘thinking’ suggests a lack of physical bodily involvement beyond the brain – a certain static immobility as seen modelled in Rodin’s classic sculpture. Design makes the digital world accessible by containing it in a shroud that concerns itself primarily with appearance: size, scale, image and style. It seeks to make the container appeal as a tool that can carry all the innuendo of the future in promises described as better, smaller, faster, with evermore-extreme superlatives being used for the primary cause, which appears to be the creation of a need and a preference - by design.

Taking Amazon’s Kindle as an example, one can see the remarkable development from the first model to the second – a dramatic change from a crude, visually heavy, slate-like platter, (I am thinking of the Grade 1/2 slates that had a substantial wooden frame around the grey stone engraved with lines on the reverse side), to what is more akin to a sheet of paper than anything else. It has a small, knife-edged, light, fine thinness that is almost unbelievable in its presence. It entrances. The eye and the hand are engaged in the pondering of this wonder, as if it was the impossible made present:  the future now. The sheet-of-paper analogy seems to seek a reference to the page of a book that it is trying to replace, suggesting a subtle sense of familiarity in a new object – perhaps an attempt at making it more acceptable to booklovers. While the differences in the appearances of these models are stark, the functions and performances of both are similar. Much the same variations are seen in models of other gadgets, but these are more acute in phones that have been produced over a longer period.

I use an old mobile phone - about ten-years old – that still works as I want it to, but it has none of the slick appearances or performances of the latest versions. I still use my fingers and eyes to manipulate the functions this tool gives me access to in much the same way as I would with a new object, even though the new mobile phone would be much more than a machine for talking. The point is that in both of these examples, the design has attended to matters that have little to do with the functional necessity of the operations involved. The ‘design’ styles these objects in much the same manner as cars are fashioned. Here trends and vogues become involved in forming a shroud for function. Sullivan’s much-abused catchphrase changes into ‘form follows fashion’ as the spruiked requirements of ‘the latest’ – it’s always the latest - technology make demands on outcomes as well as on social expectations that are prompted and propped by the those making and selling these objects. The prospects for the future are determined by those seeking to profit from the product in the same circular manner as a desire for an item is established by advertisements that give results that are then used to prove that the product is a desired or preferred object, thus self-fulfilling its own prophecy. Necessity in the digital world involves the ephemeral visionary possibilities of the electronics and the encompassing style. Functions for the body and its eyes and fingers just have to be somehow incorporated into this forming of a favourable identity – the primary aim. So it is that we see in some units, buttons that are so small that they become a challenge even for the smallest of digits. This is a secondary issue to the image and has been addressed by the development of special tools to allow the unit to be operated.

With Kindle, to continue with the use of this electronic-book gadget as an example, the controls are all slickly enveloped flush in the finely formed frame, made almost invisible by its styling that aims to promote its core qualities: thin, small, slick (read hi-tech), light and readable, all with a ‘book-like’ feel. The design becomes the framework that shapes access to information. The irony here is that what one is given access to - in Kindle - reminds one of books published in the Victorian era. These were black and white and were illustrated with inked etchings and engravings that gave what now looks like a rather schematic, scratchy identity to the images that frequently had much the same character. Kindle is a strange experience where the new invokes the old. Perhaps all early developments have to struggle through similar crude times until they are engulfed by sophistication? Compared to the reading of a book, the experience is Spartan, but who knows what the future may hold? This is science’s great promise for this beautiful thing.

I am reminded here of my attempts to use a rather nicely designed - well, it looked good - coffee machine. To use this minimalist coffee maker one had only to pop a small container into a recess made by moving the lever, pull a lever and press a button: the rest was managed by the machine that was a sleek black form with one outlet; one lever; and one button. Its brevity was astonishing. Other machines have such a diverse arrangement of controls that guidance and training are needed for their operation. This unit sat on a granite bench and displayed a certainty and clarity in its simplicity that suggested the possibilities of a simple and intuitive operation: but I could not get it to work. I checked the cable, the plug, the main switch – but nothing happened. I was unable to discover any other on/off switch on the unit so, in hopeful desperation, I tried everything possible – jiggling the plug; operating the lever slowly; reinserting the insert; pulling the lever with a more determined approach - faster - as if willing the machine to do something; but it still didn’t go. Was there another switch somewhere? Finally I ran my fingers over every surface available until I found the switch tucked away in a shadowed recess at the rear of the base of the unit, all nicely detailed in black to remain out of sight and flush, so as, it seemed, to be able to maintain the uncluttered identity of this appliance. It was apparent that no thought had been given to any new operator unfamiliar with the diagram on the instruction leaflet.

Is this new design approach becoming our model for design in general? These amazing gadgets are becoming such an intimate and central part of ourselves and our lives, they may begin to establish a new paradigm for the way in which we consider design. Are we merely stylists, providing a wrapper for a predetermined set of functions, responding to the calls of futures, fashion and sales? Is our task merely becoming perceived as that of providing a wrapper? The Japanese have always held the idea of the wrapper being just as important as the object being enclosed, arguing that the container had an integral requirement to maintain and promote the contained object’s qualities, even if the concept was just to show that one had cared for these – recognised and respected them. Our wrapping has little to promote or consider other than the guessed futures of electronics that claim to be getting ever faster, smaller, better, clearer and cheaper. Fuller’s ‘ephemeralisation’ seems to be coming into being as more and more digital functions are fully integrated into our objects - disappearing into them - leaving only an assumed style to promote their presence. Was Fuller’s vision the splash that we are still being shaken by? Are today’s splashes themselves becoming more ephemeral so that we can no longer recognise them as significant ideas?

Most of what has been spoken about in this text involves what we call industrial design. The question is: is design in architecture being changed by this digital world and its approach to things? Is design perceived only as an interface between function and body – as a stylistic possibility: one of the ad hoc set of many possible imagined forms? Pick-and-choose? Instead of being seen as a machine for living (for example), has the house become a stylish presentation for performances to be seen by others – to impress? Does it have to be? One sees many houses in the movies, on televisions and in the real estate advertisements that could make one believe that this is so. It is more obvious in commercial buildings that are blatant about their self-promotion. Is this where design is going?

There is a sink available now that is made from a new composite, granite-like material. It is designed by Porsche, and is so marked. It is a Franke product, a European design, created, not by the carmaker, but by F.A. Porsche, the first son of the sportscar company founder, Ferry Porsche. The object has all of the requirements necessary to promote it as a fashionable, unique object with its singular branded style and prestige: to impress. Its cost only adds to its significance in this context. It looks elitist - different. There are certainly many cheaper sinks available in our ‘Crazy Plus’ world of third-world imports that seem to be valued for their low prices alone. In spite of all of these pseudo- impressionable qualities, the Porsche sink is a beautiful thing, not only to look at, but also to use. Its design makes a commitment to understanding and accommodating the ordinary functions of the kitchen in a compact and multifunctional manner. It is a joy to use. The subtlest of simple tasks that arise in the kitchen over the sink have been considered here and attended to, allowing them to be accommodated without effort or display. This modesty belies its branding, and enriches and surprises one as the most simple and complex of tasks are enacted. The sink facilitates body movements and desired outcomes. It has not been ‘styled’ for its own importance, although it has, in one way, been made a beautiful object. Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’ can be seen to be embodied in the experience of its use. The words ‘f f f’ remain as a cliché today, but they do need to be reinvigorated before our entire efforts in design become merely the seeking of stylistic solutions. The ‘f’ words need to have their meanings revived.

Like many quoted phrases, Sullivan’s is always taken out of its context. The words are catchy, carry a phonetic rhythm, and have been popularised beyond meaning and comprehension just as E=mC2 has. They support only preconceptions when left stranded alone in another place as a solitary set of words whose support is often sought for the most alien of outcomes; or, at other times, just to make the spruiker sound important. Sullivan spoke of form following function, and of function following form in a poetic sense far removed from our easy, simplistic and singular understanding today. He spoke, by way of example, of the form of the rose as being the function of the rose; and vice versa. Think about this circumstance - this integral presence of beauty, wonder and necessity that was the inspirational vision of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Leber Meister who used things floral for his wonderful decoration in a manner now alien to our times. Indeed, his decoration finally became alien to his own time and rudely left Sullivan to die a pauper. We must not forget what Sullivan was telling us: that body and feeling are involved in a way that is rich, subtle and vital - that is always more than an adaptation of pure functional aspirations.

Feelings are a part of the whole, but ‘feeling smart’ is alien to this circumstance. We must maintain a constant vigilance in our times to ensure that the hype of what is popularly seen as progress does not pervert our perceptions of what design can be and should be. The attractive dominance of phones, pods, pads, along with an ever-growing number of playthings could very easily highlight only the limited aspect of their shaping – their style and fashion; their easy prestige and self-promotional importance; their greedy ambition for laziness, and change our approach to design: for these things are very attractive and alluring. We should remember that design is not self-centred slickness or a concentration on appearances. It is not puffed up. What Wright called the poet of ancient times spoke of this in another context:
Charity suffereth long, [and] is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,  I Corinthians 13:4
Love is involved but our era forbids this debate, even though it might learn from it. It is merely unfashionable, so it is ignored, sneered at. Yet an envious, vaunting, puffed-up quality seems to touch on things digital and the individual’s public performance with the bold, look-at-me, listen-to-me strides struck down the street while considering no one else or recognising anything otherwise, or to be otherwise. Does the promoted p, p, p design approach and its outocmes promote such a response? Is it inherent in it?

Design has the quality of an interface - of the between - but it is inclusive: it is not just a skin, or skin deep, or merely fashionable. It is not a container or wrapper. It does not decorate to distract, entertain or surprise – or to look pretty or acceptable. It does more than exist as a style between fragile, fancy functions and the body. There is a more necessary - a more essential - quality in design. There is depth and resonance here, and wholeness: integral interrelationships. Design is the object, not just its appearance; design is the body, not just its extension. It holds both between. Design is not just a tool to make things attractive. If roses are too quaint to understand - too sweet and flowery in an exuberantly Victorian manner - consider the leaf: its form and function; its function and form. The science of photosynthesis makes the leaf more accessible to our minds than any understanding of roses as we have been made so logical and rational by our era. It can also open our eyes to its astonishing beauty too.

We should try to ensure that these times do not change expectations of our shaping and making of things – that we do not lose sight of why we need to do more than style and re-style. Then we might be able to retrieve, expose and relate to some of the poetry that our world and ourselves so richly embody – and allow this to change our thinking and acting. Design is not just making something attractive or beautiful, or to benefit sales. It is not something to promote self-importance. It is a core part of our existence that can and should enhance its poetic possibilities. It shows how we can be responsible to and for each other rather than continue to use and abuse anyone for personal gain. Design shares the wonder of ourselves and our world, allowing us to remember our remembrance of things past in the present that always is Now. This is the interface that needs to drive our actions. This is the ‘information’ – the being informed - that we need to attend to. Our gadgets will be of little help here: it is personal, not digital: intimate flesh and blood, not the flash and bleat of remote electronic circuits or their promoters.

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