Friday, 5 February 2016


There is something about design that seems to want to encourage 'originality,' a concept that grows from another vision, that of the 'creative genius.' Every 'design' effort seems to want to produce something different, unique – bespoke. Designers appear to try to make their singular mark, to give a design 'their touch' as if to identify their special brilliance; their own way of seeing. So things are always being made, modelled and marked differently. Cars all start looking slightly different in various demanding, self-conscious ways. The core, the essential need for function in vehicles, matters to do with having to work efficiently and to be safe, establishes a field of requirements that cannot be manipulated randomly to suit various whims. Still, much effort goes into variations on themes: see -

Once designers get into fashion clothing, then most constraints are removed and we see enormous variations in everything. Even fit appears to hold no essential requirement. Design takes on a random shaping that responds to the creators' visions rather than the user's needs of functions and comfort. The display is critical. As in architecture, the tired 'form follows function' mantra of old is mocked and ignored in favour of something like 'form follows my unique vision,' MY desire to stand out as a special creature. Design takes on a frivolous, ad hoc aspect that places an importance on fanciful appearances rather than on the achievement of any rational accomplishments.

Yet it is important for good design to incorporate more than merely looking good, or even startling. The original Dyson DC02 vacuum cleaner looked highly unusual in the shop display when it first arrived, so much so that it was easy to dismiss as a foolish, contrived attempt to create a smart, eye-catching, different design. It was only when one looked more closely at the product and its ambitions that its shaping became self-evidently logical and purely functional. One's use of the vacuum cleaner also confirmed that here was a piece of household electrical equipment that had considered the user. The traditional vacuum cleaner had come to be known as a very unfriendly, cantankerous object, difficult to manoeuvre, and awkward to untangle and store away. The Dyson DC02 responded to these foibles that had come to be entrenched and expected in vacuum cleaners as an unwieldy, graceless but iconic necessity. Perhaps this reputation came from the original 'door-to-door' sold Electrolux cylinder model on runners, that came complete with a separate electrical cord, a heavy flexible tube and extension pipes that all tumbled terribly into the store along with a loose collection of sundry 'useful' accessories that always had nowhere to go except everywhere and anywhere.

Dyson recognised these difficulties that everyone had experienced, and started addressing them in the first model that saw the silliness of dragging air through a filthy bag that could only get more and more congested, and hence inefficient with time. Future developments constantly improved the 'cyclone' idea of dust extraction as well as the accommodation of the parts, and the overcoming of the awkwardness of moving the machine around. The most compact development was the battery-operated, hand-held unit, the V6 model, that was stored on its charger that also held the accessories on clips. At last there was a cordless vacuum cleaner that could be easily manipulated in most situations, with excellent suction. This is good design – its not only works well, but it also is pleasant to operate and simple store and keep charged; and it looks good.

Dyson has gone on to challenge the problems in other pieces of equipment that have inherent traditional difficulties, like the upright fan and the hand dryer. Upright fans have been notorious for being noisy and unsafe for little fingers. Dyson designed the 'air multiplier,' the AM06, using a slotted draught to increase the velocity of the ambient air. It is the same idea adapted from the hand dryer that cleverly directs sheets of air onto each side of the hand in such a way that the hands are efficiently dried in about ten seconds. The history of hand dryers is that there are many that make the appropriate noise, but have very little drying power. How many times have saturated hands had to be flicked dry outside of the amenity block, or wiped on one's clothing? The design efforts of Dyson have removed the endless frustrations of the original, problematical models with good design, design that looks closely at forms, functions, technology and the experience of the user. This is the approach to architecture that ignores any preferred appearances and concepts in favour of understanding and accommodating both functional purpose and the experience of the user. The proposition latent in this manner of working is that design that does the right things for people and purpose will always look and perform well without unnecessary contrivances. This strategy is usually applied to so-called 'functional' objects.

One of the best designs experienced as a beautiful thing and a wonderfully functional object is the Franke sink designed by F. A. Porsche. The name has nothing to do with the preference; it is only the performance and the appearance that has proven to be complete and satisfactory, not any apparent self-centred prestige or elitism. The sink is a small, modular sink that becomes more of a workplace; a 'work centre' might the marketing phrase, such it is organisation and flexibility. Every part is interchangeable and has been beautifully considered. Holes in panels for drainage are offset squares, a theme that has been developed for the whole assembly. It is in the use of this system that one finds the design totally enjoyable, as it facilitates possibilities unselfconsciously, effortlessly. One finds that the design will allow one to do whatever one wants without stress, discomfort, or any ad hoc innovation to overcome discovered awkwardnesses. It is an excellently designed unit that one keeps on enjoying time and time again. All details do what they should and more: they are beautiful too. One happily discovers that they anticipate circumstances. The experience of use is a simple joy. One is constantly admiring the object, its thoughtfulness and considered completeness.

It is book design that has become the most recent frustration with design as appearance that seems only to make sense as a promotion of the 'clever, unique ME.' I was given the book Breakfast with Lucian A Portrait of the Artist by Geordie Grieg, published by Vintage Books, London, 2005. Starting to read it one evening, it began to feel awkward to both hold and read. It was unclear why. Maybe one was tired, so it was put aside. The next morning the book was picked up to start again where the disturbance had caused the hiatus. Then it was noticed. On the right-hand page, the body of the text had been blocked out to a two-thirds page width column with the wider margin at the bound edge. Page numbers and titles, aligned with this body of text on the right, with page numbers usefully being on the lower right-hand corner side where one usually finds them.

The left-hand page had a nearly identical arrangement – yes, identical. The pages could be torn out and placed one above the other and they would have looked almost indistinguishable. The only difference was that the page number and chapter title were aligned with the block of text on the left, with the number being placed on the outer left, not in the corner of the page as it was opposite. This apparent design idea meant that the wider margin of the left page was on the left of the left-hand side, squeezing the body of text tight into the spine on the right. This was the arrangement that had caused the difficulty and discomfort. While the right-hand page offered an easy graphic arrangement to hold and to read, the left-hand page proved to be both difficult and annoying. One had to try to read the text as it rolled around the page tight into the spine. If the pages had been mirrored, the comfort of the right could have been replicated on the left, not just printed as an almost identical copy. The mirrored layout would also have placed the page number in the extreme left corner where they are easy to find with a simple flicking through the book. The actual setout leaves the left page number frustratingly set in some sixty millimetres from the edge of the blank page. All of this, so it seems, is for the selected style.

The book was designed and typeset in Centaur by Peter Ward. What on earth was he thinking? Was he trying out HIS special interpretation of a 'designed' book, one rarely seen before? What might his hopes have been? He did not appear to give the reader and the reader's comfort any consideration at all. It simply seems as though he thought he had come across a clever idea that he has implemented, as 'HIS design.' Appearance is apparently the only reason for this near matching. One hopes it was not a printer's oversight, or a matter of economy! One wonders if Mr. Ward has ever tried to use the book, to read it with a nonchalant disregard for pretence or self-admiration; or has he only seen the pages set out graphically, digitally?

What this book does is to highlight the fact that design must always involve more than appearances. Design has to consider functions, forms and people, the experience of use. If all design made this effort instead of trying to be cleverly slick and unique, then we might start living in a world that can accommodate us well. As it is, we have things made for the way they look, objects that make us behave as though we might be on a theatre set, very self-consciously. We become theatrical performers, acting for appearances too, instead of living with an accommodated contentment and comfort, free from the demands of things that have their attentions elsewhere, not on those who will use them. Seen in this light, the book is a failure, a problem, because it seems to be shaping a design for a public performance, when reading is a private, an intimate involvement. It is the special performance of the designer that is being placed as a burden, an impediment, on the reader who should be able to give total attention to the content aided by a design that can facilitate functions unselfconsciously, and beautifully too.

The challenge is for our world to become such a place. It might help generate contentment rather than stimulate gritty aggression in demanding difference. Quirky designs might stand out and get commented upon, but they create challenges with the trials and tribulations of bespoke brilliance that knows and cares only for itself. Architecture might like to stride off into a world of ever-new and clever theories as it walks away from Sullivan's 'form follows function.' It can do this, only in the sense of the best scientific theories, conjectures that get refuted or embodied; where the ever-new is always incorporating the past, enriching it as it slips into an essential background as a given, proven. It can be seen a little like the first electric guitars that startled the world. It took years for good music to come from this invention. As with the piano player who first struggles until Beethoven can roll of the finger tips without a thought, just with feeling, good design should hold embodied theory in its roots as it dances off into the unknown. Without this, design is merely a random, visual display; a personal preference for dramatic difference; mere graphic decoration. There are problems with a world made up of theatrical divergences. It makes everyone attempt to do likewise, so that each individual can exist in the chaos of demands to be noticed.

Other writings on design:

To see the workings of a graphic designer's mind, and a beautifully detailed book, see:
Alan Fletcher The Art of Looking Sideways Phaidon Press, London, 2001.
One has to experience this publication in all of its rich, intricate subtlety in order to truly appreciate the skill and wit of the master designer who pieced it together.

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