Design Fetish (Part 1)

I must recommend the documentary Objectified.

After viewing it recently, I immediately adapted the next day’s lecture on Popular Culture to include a few scenes for discussion.

Objectified explores design, specifically the thousands of everyday objects we interact with everyday: toothbrushes, chairs, carpet, pencils, butter containers, fridge, car, clothes, toys, toothpicks, books – indeed everything has been carefully designed by someone.

In it, a dozen designers discuss the merits and philosophy of their work, plus we get the usual salivating homage to Apple. German Dieter Rams then states there are 10 essential rules of good design:

1. Good design is innovative

2. Good design makes a product useful

3. Good design is aesthetic design

4. Good design will make a product understandable

5. Good design is honest

6. Good design is unobstrusive

7. Good design is long-lived

8. Good design is consistent in every detail

9. Good design is environmentally friendly

10. Good design is as little design as possible

But worshipping Apple for their embodiment of these reveals a dangerous paradox: The more we adore the design of a product, the quicker we desire to upgrade to the next model.We appreciate the iPhone product design so much we can’t wait to bin it for the next one.

That’s a bizarre kind of love. It’s more like a fetish. That’s the problem with much innovative design: it’s so now and tomorrow, that it becomes yesterday very quickly.

Iconic designer, Karim Rashid actually advocates a more disposable world like this, where everything from lounges to laptops are specifically designed for a very short life, like trendy clothes, and made of cheap recyclable materials. He says this would free us to be more bold and creative in choice, embracing trends & fashion, and being more honest and less scared to try newness.

But Thomus Overthus (IDEO), while agreeing that all design, good or bad, ultimately ends up in the rubbish (noting the environmental consequences), wonders whether good design could can lead us to totally rethink how we consume products. We all use 154 toothbrushes in a lifetime  – but what if we had a timeless toothbrush? One which actually improved with age, like leather lounges & wine? What if we viewed all our objects that way?

Personally, living in a part of the world gorging on new consumer products (but where we do actually need some stuff) – I try and adhere to the principles of quality, simplicity and timelessness.

If I have to buy something, frankly I try to buy less things that will last as long as possible, and exist beyond trends.

For example, about ten years ago, after walking around endless furniture stores despairing at paying $1000 for the latest stapled-together trendy lounge, I found a store selling classic Chesterfield leather lounges. It was $1200, came with a 20-year warrantee, and is actually improving in comfort and look (ten years later). It looks timeless.

Ditto our long dining table. It was hand-made from hardwood, cost $1500, and we consider any scratches from here to be marks of memories, years of conversations over thousands of meals. It won’t be replaced in our lifetime.

The rest of our small amount of furniture are from second-hand or antique shops. Gorgeous, some with scratches, but because they’re not trendy today (or untrendy) they won’t be replaced. Lived-in quality old furniture oozes beauty, personality, design and steadfastness. Time, age and memories can make the design timeless.

So, does design matter?

Sure, it does. God is a good designer. Note how Dieter’s ten rules all speak to design which suits the contours and principles of nature itself. It’s sad the term ‘Intelligent Design’ is so associated with derided 7-day Creationism at a time when intelligent design is so widely lauded.

For me, as with people, I trust things that age well, proven through time with scratches and worn bits included. Some things in life need to be new. Some things need to be newly discovered.

Besides, so much design today conforms to the curse of Helvetica (but more on that in part 2)