Design in a fast changing society
Exhibition catalogue
Torino Design Capital 2008


Break the seals!

My favorite lamp is one that I designed myself. Or perhaps design is not the right word here – it is made, not designed.

About thirty years ago, when I did not have enough money to go out and buy the lamps that I liked, while the cheaper ones didn't appeal to me, I needed a light source. I looked on my attic and found an old tripod that didn't function anymore because the top was missing. Also lying around was a flexible metal neck from a desk lamp that had broken down as well, and a shade of yet another lamp. With these unemployed parts, some odd pieces of metal and a few screws and bolts I tinkered a lamp that still graces my house today. What I like about it, is that it was assembled from readily available parts that were not designed to be joined, but fitted quite well together. Imagine design would work like that! That you could re-use parts of products of which other parts have broken down, and combine them with parts from other products to make a new and quite different one. Alas, reality is not so flexible, quite the contrary: often, when a product fails and you buy a new one, you have to discard a whole set of assessory products. Just like everyone else I have a stockpile of power adaptors, memory cards, battery packs and loaders, not to mention miles of unusable cables, that I hesitate to throw away because there is nothing wrong with them. The only problem is I can't use them because my new computer, or camera or telephone or TV requires a slightly different plug or uses a slightly different voltage, or a slightly different size battery pack or another type of memory card.

This is irritating, and not only because such a waste of perfectly good stuff is irresponsible in times when the mantra everyone hums is 'sustainability'. It is irritating on a more principle, or if you will profound, level: that so many things have been designed in a way that they can be only used in one context, or with only one product. Or to put it differently, the use of a product has been sealed within the design. Plugs are a case in point: Until about two decades ago, you could open up a power plug, unscrew the wires and attach a new plug. This simple operation was made possible because the plug's casing was in two parts, connected by a screw. Nowadays, the majority of plugs is sealed and cannot be opened. They may look slightly smoother than the old ones, but they limit the use of the product they are attached to to only one context – their own.

This is of course an old discussion, to which in the past the usual answer has been: standardization. But since standardization requires that everyone agrees to follow the same approach and sticks to it, its reach is limited – there are so many things that we don't agree about. And even if we do, we just simply like to be different or new. So we are surrounded by objects that celebrate their being different by arrogantly refusing to be used outside their own parameters, or to connect to other, older products. Already in the 1980s, design analyst Lucius Burckhardt called such products 'böse Objecte', malign objects that do not take into account the myriad invisible ways they are connected to other objects and, more importantly, to the way people use them. For a product not only performs a function, it also dictates conduct. In other words, designers and their commissioners give form to behavior as much as they design objects – they design procedures. A classic example of this was given by Burckhardt, in his introduction to the seminal 1981 book 'Design ist unsichtbar' (Design is Invisible): In rural areas in Germany, the postman had to cover considerable distances to present the mail in person to people living at the end of long drive ways. So the postal authorities ordained that people should place their mailboxes on the main road, at the entrance to their drive ways. A nice-looking and highly functional mailbox was designed for that purpose. This saved the postman time and the company money, and all in all seemed to make delivering mail more efficient. Since then, however, the inhabitants of these remote areas have been cut off from one of their major sources of information, the news the postman himself spread from village to village, from farm to farm. To the farmers, the news the postman was carrying himself was often more important than the letters he carried as well. By removing the personal contact between the postman and the people he served, for reasons of efficiency, the service became less efficient. The new mailbox turned out to be a 'malign object', because the organizational design behind it did not take into account how it would change the social sphere around it.

Design, so this example illustrates, is a form of communication. And, as I have shown, often a rather one-sided affair when it comes to product- and industrial design. One would wish that design was more flexible. Not sealed into böse Objekte, but structured more like a toolkit. This idea of design as a toolkit has by now deeply installed itself within the standard practices of interaction and interface design. Generally, in communication design the idea of empowerment of the 'user' is widely accepted. The shift in jargon, from 'recipient' to 'user', reflects a more active position for those who in earlier periods were merely seen as passive consumers of information. They are talking back now and designers are focusing on their response in the new discipline of 'user experience design'.

Of course, flexibility is easier achievable in virtual environments, where a mouse click can change a complete interface, than in the material world, where one needs to physically fit real objects to make them work together. But still, communication – in the real sense of two-way communication, of dialogue – is rare when it comes to product design. Flexibility is seen – if at all – as a matter of mixing functions, or as a superficial thing, for instance in the customization of colors, fabrics or 'skins'. The new Apple iPhone is a case in point. It is one of the most brilliant gadgets I have ever seen, combining telephone, PDA, camera and iPod into one slick little tablet. The flexibility of use that this palm-top computer enables is courtesy of its cutting-edge touch screen interface. Not only does this interface change the function and handling of the device at a finger-tap, it is also one of the most intuitive graphic user interfaces I have ever come across. I knew most of it's functions within five minutes, and the rest within an hour, by just playing with it. But this flexibility has its limits. iPhone doesn't allow me to make calls through the internet (as in Skype), although it has all the technological requirements to do so; it doesn't let me change the typeface I have to use for my notes; and I can't change the horribly illustrative design of it's buttons for my own or someone-else's. What is more annoying, I can't use the power extension cord from my MacBook, because the plug is different in one tiny detail, so it doesn't fit. This may seem trivial, but for me it testifies to a lack of understanding of the users of such devices. Quite a few of us have great brand loyalty, and so we have a frustratingly large heap of paraphernalia such as the power cords and -adaptors, which do the same thing for different products of the same brand without being interchangeable where they could be. In other words, as soon as we leave the realm of software and graphic user interfaces, where interactivity and adjustability rule – albeit within the limits the market allows, as is shown by the missing VOIP function in the iPhone –, we are thrown back into a world of sophisticated looking but sealed off objects that unilaterally dictate their context of use to their users.

But the popular notion of interactivity should not be limited to digital objects. The stern modularity which hides behind the fundamental code rule 'if, then, else' can also be used as a model for thinking about objects in the real world. In this model, the 'if, then' part connects the brief to the product, and the product to its use. The interesting part of the formula, in our context, is 'else'. What if the product, or a part of it, has outlived its original context? What if a new context arises, within which the old product could perfectly function, if only it would be allowed to do so? What if the plug doesn't fit any apparatus anymore, the lamp shade has become outmoded, the mail box has been replaced by digital delivery? 'Else', in these cases mostly means 'discard': 'If a product functions according to its sealed-in brief, then use it. Else: throw it away.' But could the mailbox become a lunch box? The plug a jewel? The lamp shade a frying pan? In such cases, 'else' would imply that the product was designed in a way that facilitates other, even unforeseen uses. This implicates a design thinking beyond 'recycling'. Of course, when a product is discarded, it is better when its parts can be easily broken down to their base materials, which can then be re-used. But why not design a product in such a way that the parts that are still functioning after the product itself has become dysfunctional or obsolete can be re-used integrally in other products? Why not, in sum, focus less on sealing the various functional parts of a product into one seamless form, and more on designing a product as a potential toolkit?

There are only very few design contexts that take this brief seriously: the design of standard parts for the engineering industry, be it construction or electronics, and the design of modular toys such as Lego. Flexibility of use is provided for specialist professionals, who know how to solve the construction puzzle of joining a stack of standardized parts together, and for children, who can join anything made in Lego to anything else made in Lego because Lego's design solved the means of construction. But what about the rest of us? Where's the design that does not just stylistically fit a range of products together, but provides a range of parts that can become well-designed lamps, chairs, bookcases, kitchen tools, clothes or what have you? Intelligent objects, not only because they have been equipped with the kind of micro-electronics that allow them to talk to each other, but intelligent because they enable us to use our own tinkering skills and combine them or their parts into new things. iPhone meets Lego.

There is an improvisational side to this, that has been largely missing from the discourses of design since the 1960s and early 1970s, when Victor Papanek and colleagues called on designers to 'design for the real world.' Essential in this approach to design was the focus on structure, modularity and flexibility. In the 'if, then, else' mode of design, it meant that the general idea of a product (a water pump, for instance) would be designed in such a way that its construction was crystal clear, whereas the parts and materials with which the product could be constructed would be largely open to local conditions and available resources. The product, in other words, was designed with the idea of constructive improvisation in mind. In times when sustainability is one of the key words in design and production, it seems a good idea to hark back to such visions and to think about design in terms of a toolbox that can be offered to the user. Stimulating user participation in either finishing a product, adding parts to it or re-using parts of it, fosters more than flexibility of use; it cultivates the awareness of a product's existence as 'assemblage' of pieces that may well outlive their original contexts. We have grown so accustomed to 'discardable' products that hide their components within a sealed box, that our eyes and minds need to be re-opened to the fact that the contents of 'the box' may well be more durable than its packaging suggests. My old tinkered lamp tells me that, because its parts could be easily deconstructed from their original products, it may live on for another thirty years – as who knows what...

max bruinsma