September 1995

We do not need new forms, we need a new mentality

Calumet & Heckla steam engine, Michigan 1866

It’s the mantra of post-modernism: we don't need new forms, because they are all there and all we can do is rearrange them. The only things that really matter are the concept – the idea behind the form – and the context – the environment on which the form should have its effect.

There are so many images, so many objects, things, designs, products, messages, that people are feeling stuffed, overloaded, claustrophobic. Our eyes get tired, our minds get weary. There are so many signs – the world has become a text and we are walking through it, reading, trying to keep up with the vast amount of messages that are tossed our way. We are asking ourselves: what is the story behind all these messages, what does this text try to say to us? But it seems that all these objects and products are as many loose words without grammatical structure. We can read each word for itself, each isolated object has a meaning, or a function, for itself. But what do all these messages, all these words add up to? How are they connected? What meanings lie hidden behind the forms?

For a long time in design, the meaning of a product was synonymous with its function. It is from this line of thought that a design ideology took its name: functionalism. But products, utensils, have more than one purpose. They are junctions in a process that is to a great extent invisible. Products have a function – but do they have a meaning also? The functionalistic answer to this question would be that the two coincide: The function is the meaning of the product. But what about this old example from the early days of industrial design: The Classicist Steam Engine. How functional are the cast-iron Corinthian columns and entablature round this steam engine from the eighteen sixties? The direct usefulness of such elaborate decoration is questionable. But it definitely carries a meaning. These Greek columns tell us something about the importance of the machine: it is the heart of a workplace unknown to the world before – the holy shrine of the industrial age. It is a temple of a new era, the centre of an almost religious cult of progress that demands total commitment and belief from everybody, from the boss to the heater. Looking at the richly decorated icons of the industrial revolution in this manner, you see more than rational production methods – you see a morality, gracefully clad in cast-iron.

This example shows the degree to which, in addition to functional and aesthetic notions, ethical concepts can play a role in design. These concepts are part of the 'invisible program' behind the design. Designers have to ask themselves how their products will be used, and in which contexts, because they pre-program the use  and the meaning of the product into the design. In this phase of the design process, ethical and moral notions raise their heads, because 'the right use' is not only a question of objective analysis (whatever the ergonomists may say); 'right', to a large extent, is 'that which is considered socially and morally desirable'. We have come to realize that the work of a designer consists of more than functional and formal analysis, of rational argumentation towards a fixed goal, the product. We see that the meaning of a product can extend far beyond its direct function.

This is a relatively recent insight. In design, for a long time, the meaning of an object has been synonymous with its function. To explain how simplistic this narrowly functionalistic design method is, I refer to a story by Lucius Burckhardt, a sociologist and chairman of the Deutsche Werkbund – one of the organizations that invented Functionalism. Burckhardt recounts it in a very important book from 1982, called Design ist Unsichtbar ('Design is invisible'): Cutting onions costs time and makes your hands smell. So the onion cutter was designed. The problem of the onion cutter is that although you gain five minutes and keep clean hands, it will cost you ten minutes to dismantle, clean and rebuild the machine, before you can use it again, a process which will result in smelly hands. Now the traditional designers' approach to this dilemma would be to define the problem as: 'the cleaning of the onion cutter'. And the traditional answer to the problem would be: the onioncuttercleaningmachine. (etcetera, ad infinitum). According to Burckhardt, the designer makes the mistake of categorizing the world in terms of objects instead of actions. In other words: in traditional designers' practice a discrete problem is directly translated into a discrete product. Another scholar, and designer, Alexander Manu, has this to say about the same mistake:


"Because they create physical objects, designers think of needs as having tangible shape. And product design tries to anticipate and meet the solid, mechanical needs of users."

(Form Follows Spirit, lecture, 1994)

In this way the world is filled to the brim with what Burckhardt calls: 'böse Objekte', malign objects, designed to solve a single problem, without considering other objects that do the same with other, maybe related problems. Out of this grows a world of egotistic products that clone themselves endlessly – monomaniacal things that sometimes slightly mutate and then shout NEW! All this obsessive objects function in a world in which everything to an ever increasing extent is connected with everything else. According to design critic Claudia Donà, "The result is that we live in a world overflowing with our own productions, a world in which objects besiege us, suffocate us, and very often distance us from one another both physically and mentally. We are compelled, by the pervasive sameness of these objects, to respond to them with the same gestures: they make us forget how to feel, to touch, to think." (from: Invisible Design, in Design after Modernism, 1988)

In our culture, the realization is growing that things do not have a one-on-one relation with a function or a user, but that each product individually is a component of a much more extensive realm – that together they give form to complex relations between people and their world. Design's over-concentrated attention to problems inherent in the product is slowly making way for attention to the contexts around the product. These contexts form the 'invisible' component of design, that surpasses the strict functionality of the product, and sometimes goes beyond the product itself. The invisible side of design is rooted in a redefinition of the terms under which the task of designing takes place. Besides being professionals of form, designers are essentially professional conceptualists. They have to address questions like: 'how to relate this product to its surroundings; how to structure the necessary information in a rich associative context; how to avoid treating the user as a stupid machine, instead of an intelligent human being? Stefano Marzano, director of Philips Corporate Industrial Design, speaks in this context of "soft values"; the design should answer to questions like: how does the product feel, how does it communicate, how does it adjust itself to its context, does it have 'personality'...

From this point of view, giving form is not just clothing the object with a nice looking shell, it is: giving form to the meanings that the object can acquire, beyond its direct function. From conversations with designers and articles by theoreticians, it appears that this conceptual approach to design can go into many directions, but they all address one central issue: the certainty that function is not enough to justify a product. I mentioned Alexander Manu already, and he argues for the design of objects that are hybrids of functional tools and playthings: ToolToys, products that at the same time satisfy practical needs, and provide the user with the pleasures associated with toys. (Form Follows Spirit, lecture, 1994) Now that functionality is no longer the first problem that concerns designers of products (technical progress has to a large extent taken care of that), these questions of relevance, user pleasure and emotions are decisive in the battle for consumers. A design that does not find a form for these questions from the outset, has no chance of surviving. This is an attitude toward design, which endows the object with characteristics of a subject – a living organism, that entices an emotional response from the user, rather than a functional one. As Cristina Morozzi, director of MODO magazine, stated:


"The emergence of analogous shapes in different sectors highlights a change in the role of the object; from an inert purchase pretext it becomes a 'creature', something endowed with its own tender personality, something to take care of and establish an almost sentimental relationship with. The object becomes narration."

(lecture, Rotterdam, 04/03/1995)

I like the word 'narration' in this context: objects are telling us stories, and they are part of a story that we tell ourselves. When designing products from this narrative point of view, you can avoid the danger of objects becoming loose words. All this accounts for what design-psychologist Tom Mitchell calls: "the shifting focus in design, away from machines and objects, to processes and people. Design (–) must abandon aesthetics and become instead a socially oriented process in which – as Niels Bohr pointed out for the new scientists – we are both spectators and actors." (from: The product as illusion, in Design after Modernism, 1988)
Designer Stefano Marzano said something similar:


"Designing such scenario's for new products is only part of a much larger trend away from the hardware aspects of products toward their function as the carrier of services. (–) In other words, the centrality of the hardware, the traditional object-product, will diminish in the mind of the consumer, and service will become paramount. And certainly designers will find themselves being more designers of services than designers of objects."

(Chocolate for Breakfast, lecture, Glasgow, sept.1993)

In this view the designer becomes a provider of services, someone who maps out the problems that surround manufacture, distribution and management of products and comes up with solutions for them. Not necessarily in the form of a product, but maybe as a semi-finished object that can be flexibly filled in by users, according to their specific needs. In this way the user becomes a participant in the design process. It could even result in designing a service, which would make a range of mass-produced products obsolete.

Beyond the object, designers alert us to the connections of products with their environment, the mutual relations between people and the ways in which they exist in the world. Now that the height of individualism that characterized the 1980s seems to have passed, there is a marked increase of interest in spiritual, ethical and moral questions concerning thought and action. The big question, however, is: what is this ethics based on, as nowadays the idea of a coherent and collectively adhered to set of norms and values seems to be as obsolete as a T-Ford. How to respect the values of individual freedom of choice and still make room for a collective responsibility? It can hardly be based upon the old beliefs of religious and political ideology – these seem to have succumbed to the forces of Post-modern relativism. I would say that 'ethics', 'morality' or 'spirituality' today are not so much a question of belief, or ideology, but of practical argumentation. Moral questions in our time are practical questions. Social justice, the environment, emancipation, the redistribution of riches, development, all these questions can (and should) be addressed from a principal and political point of view, but they are very much connected to down-to-earth practical questions too. To quote Stefano Marzano again:


"Design is a political act. Every time we design a product, we are making a statement about the direction the world will move in. We therefore have to continually ask ourselves: is the product we are designing relevant?"

More than ever, it is a practical matter, a matter of downright survival, for designers to address the relevance of the products they design. Technical, industrial objects do not just arise; they are the result of how people experience their environment. Meanings and messages concerning our relation to the world lie hidden in the objects with which we sense and manipulate our environment, and it is the task of the designers of these objects to give these things the room to tell us their – our – stories. It means that designers should think of ways to make explicit, what philosophers call 'the moral script' of products. An example, which I borrow from Dutch technology philosopher Petran Kokkelkoren: in the plastic bag there is an implicit moral script that presumes the existence of a place outside this world, where we can dump our debris, without ever seeing it again. The fact that the plastic bag lives forever, is of no concern in this script – it provides a mental room where we can discard of it and forget about it. Now a paper bag or a bag of recycled material carry different scripts, both with their specific contexts and presumptions. For designers, this view of products as carriers of moral or ethical codes constitutes a challenge: how can we represent more or less abstract concepts of for instance environmentally friendly use of material and social responsibility in such a way that users get such messages? The challenge for designers is to find new metaphors en new formal characteristics for a new attitude towards industrial products. This is a difficult assignment, for at present there are hardly any aesthetic codes that specifically point to an 'ethically correct' content.

Designers cannot change the world on their own, but they do have the possibilities to visualize connections and contexts, they can point to a restructuring of the processes of design, production, distribution and use, because they represent the starting point of these processes. And they can try to tell us the story that our world of objects adds up to. Designers can try to find new, content driven ways of dealing with visual metaphors. They can show the meanings of objects that, beyond their functional and decorative aspects, express the concerns of our culture.


(This essay is based on a lecture delivered at IDEM, Industrial Design Educational Meeting, Alden-Biesen, Belgium, 17 September 1995 – an adapted translation of the first two essays in the 6-part series 'Voorbij het Object' (beyond the object), published in Items design journal in 1995 and 1996. It was re-issued in "In case of design – inject critical thinking", edited and published by Frida Jeppsson, 2011)

max bruinsma