Monday, October 19, 2009


I missed the documentary "Objectified" when it was in theaters, so I ended up getting it from Netflix. It's actually better because I can watch it over and over again and write down the quotes I like. (Spoilers Alert!)

On form and function

Alice Rawsthorn, design editor of International Herald Tribune, comments on the new generation of products where "the form bears absolutely no relation to the function." "Look at something like an iPhone and think of all the things it does. In 'ye olden days' of what are called analog products, ... something like a chair or a spoon, 'form follows function' tended to work." Imagine some Martians land on Planet Earth, they could get a rough sense what they were supposed to do with them, by the shape of the object, by the way it looks. "Now all that has been annihilated by the microchip. So design is moving from this culture of the tangible and the material to an increasingly intangible and immaterial culture."

Karim Rashid talks about the camera. Before the digital age, the silver film defines the format and proportion of cameras. "All of a sudden our cameras have no film, why on earth do we have the same shape we had before?"

On design thinking

Design is not about the average person. Dan Formosa from Smart Design New York says, "What we really need to do to design, is to look at the extremes, the weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, the strongest or the fastest person. Because if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself." If people with arthritis can hold on to a handle comfortably, it will work for everybody.

David Kelley recalls when he started the design consulting firm IDEO, industrial design was "primarily about aesthetics, or the cleverness around function." Designers were like "hired guns to complete some aspect." As they grew they became more and more involved in the design of the overall product. When they take a more user-centered consideration of "what do people value, what are their needs?" it results in different products, or sometimes it's not necessarily a product, not an object per se. The real question becomes not "What's a new toothbrush?" but "What's the future of oral care?" Design thinking is a way to systematically be innovative, to design creative scenarios that are based on objects.

On bad and good design

David Kelley: "People need to demand that design performs for them and is special in their lives. If you can't make your GPS thing work in your car, there should be like a riot because they are so poorly designed. Instead the person sits there and thinks, 'Oh I am not very smart, I can't make this GPS thing work.'"

Karim Rashid: You feel it when you sit in chairs that are very uncomfortable. Imagine how many chairs have been done to date in the world, "why on earth should we have an uncomfortable chair? There's no excuse whatsoever."

What's good design? Dieter Rams, German designer and former design director at Braun, gives the following ten principles:
"Good design should be innovative.
Good design should make a product useful.
Good design is aesthetic design.
Good design will make a product understandable.
Good design is honest.
Good design is unobtrusive.
Good design is long-lived.
Good design is consistent in every detail.
Good design is environmental friendly.
Last but not least, good design is as little design as possible."

It's interesting to see how many designers featured in the film agree that good design objects are straight-forward. Henry Ford once said, "every object tells a story, if you know how to read it." Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa describes it as "design dissolving in behavior." This reminds me of the Daoist concept of "Wu Wei," which literally means "not doing anything" but implies letting it act naturally.

Jonathan Ive, Senior VP Indutrial Design of Apple, explains the design of the MacBook Air. "A lot of what we seem to be doing in a product like that is getting design out of the way. And I think when forms develop with that sort of reason, and they're not just arbitrary shapes, it feels almost inevitable, it feels almost un-designed. It feels almost like, well of course it's that way, why would it be any other way?" They tried to remove the things that are "all vying for you attention." It should "speak about how you are gonna use it, not the terrible struggles."

Alice Rawsthorn says, "Many of the best examples of industrial design are things that people don't think were designed at all." People just use them so comfortably that they just take it for granted. Yes, people tend to only notice and yell when things break or get stuck...

I am saving my favorite for the last. Dieter Rams again: "What particularly bothers me today is the arbitrariness and thoughtlessness, with which many things are produced and brought to market. Not only in the sector of consumer goods, but also in architecture, in advertising. We have too many unnecessary things everywhere." Nicely put! I am going to shave.


Jan said...

Hi! Let me comment on some of your points about form and function.

I suspect that the contrast between the purportedly readable forms of ‘analog’ products and the allegedly unreadable forms of ‘digital’ products has no base in reality.

That a Martian, or anyone else not familiar with the way objects are used, would be able to guess what any given artifact is for on the basis of its shape alone, is an obvious nonsense. It is utterly impossible to say what an object is for only by looking at its forms, without having either used it onseself, or without having seen others use it, or use some other analogous objects. It is never shape alone which gives us the clue.

Design community has ceremonially tossed away the form follows function slogan but seems unwilling to part with the residual silly claim implied in that very slogan: that perception of designed forms has nothing to do with our prior experience. It is a self-serving belief because it reassures designers that they can safely ignore any form-related expectations on the part of users as irrelevant. In this way designers can assume the feel-good identity of autonomous artists, an identity that a majority of both designers and architects still seem to crave.

Human said...

Jan, thanks for your comment! First of all, let me be clear that the ideas in this post is mostly quotes, not really "my points."

We are talking about good design here. Good design should be self-explanatory. You should be able to figure out how to turn on a machine, explore its functions without much struggle. Some of these indications come from the shape. You said nobody would know what to do "without having either used it oneself, or without having seen others use it." I disagree. Good design should speak to you about what to do. How did the first person who used this thing figure it out? I think it's more related to the need of the user than experience. Let's say, if Martians never sit, they won't understand what a chair is for when they see one. But humans do. Stairs were not initially designed to be sit on. But judging from its shape, we decide that we can also sit on them.

I can see more and more people are aware that designers are not artists. The concept of "function" has evolved, from mechanical to electronic, and its reflection doesn't necessarily result in a form. It can be about software ("interactive design"). But the care of the user remains. I am not saying there's no self-indulgent designers. But I hope you can find more user-centered design ideas from the post and the documentary itself, which i highly recommend.