Friday, November 28, 2008

Sustainability and Accessibility

A ubiquitous theme of sustainability and accessibility can be found in most my work up to this point. I am fascinated by the way design can affect people and the impact it can have on the world. There is so much more to design, I feel, that making sophisticated looking products. As designers we have the amazing prospect to change not only the way the world is seen, but also the way it is interacted with.

One of the reasons I chose industrial design and am so passionate about it is, I feel, it provides the most opportunity to make changes and impact the world in a positive way. As opposed to other majors, such as any of the fine art disciplines or most other design majors, the focus on functionality and improvement of the existing conditions of today is paramount in industrial design. It is the fixing of the current problems of today that sets it apart from every other major; in this way it is selfless in nature and is primarily about the user. The personal subjective opinions of the designer often take a back seat to the factual information, understanding, and observations that are so imperative when designing a product.

I am quite sure I am not the only one who is fed up by the current state of the industrially made object. Planned obsolescence has been elevated to a cultural norm, brought on by big corporations. People have become so accustomed to just throwing away old products and then buying new, slightly updated ones. This mentality is entirely spawned by industry and the desire for blind economic growth. A perfect example is the iPod. Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, suggested that "If you always want the latest and greatest, then you have to buy a new iPod at least once a year." This mentality is not only concerned with technical improvements, but also with aesthetics. This is especially apparent in the fashion industry. New styles come out every season, but the shirt and the dress haven’t changed, functionally speaking, since early civilizations have been sewing and hand stitching. This outlook and mindset is horribly unsustainable and unbalanced. It places economic gain before the well being of the environment and the people that a prospering economy is supposed to benefit.

It seems clear that there currently exists a cultural tradition, brought on by industry, which places a high value on the possession of material things and a relatively low value on the natural world. This way of thinking needs to change and a balance needs to be achieved in order to maintain life as we know it on this earth. Industrial designers have the power to change the way people view the world, and can create a new paradigm through which people live their lives.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Local Sustainablility

     The idea of limiting the amount of mass production that is done on a global scale seems like it would be a fitting and obvious solution to the environmental crisis we now find ourselves in. Currently, mass produced industrially made objects are the norm, but just a few hundred years ago, sustainability was the only option. Nearly all things were locally made, simply because that was the only option, transportation and importing products was out of the realm of possibility. If you wanted a chair, you probably would make it yourself or had someone in your town make one. If you wanted a jacket, you or somebody in your family would make it, and you would probably get the wool from the sheep you kept in the barn in your backyard. This idea of locality seems essential to sustainability. It has also worked for thousands upon thousands of years. Could this work today then, or is the society of today somehow to radically different from that of the past for it to work? One difference that could cause it not to work includes population. The population of the world has increased so drastically in recent times. Imagine that synthetic materials never existed, and everyone relied solely on natural and organic things to live on. That would mean using only things like wool and organic cotton, and only naturally grown food, etc. On top of this, all of these things would have to be produced in very close proximity (relatively speaking) to the place of their distribution and use. People living in densely populated areas, or places with limited resources would have a very difficult time getting by. People have become so accustomed to synthetic materials, imported goods, and other similar recent developments, and have built lifestyles, industries, and societies around them. Shifting over to a local sustainable way of life would be a difficult move, and would probably be best dealt with over a long period of time.

     Perhaps the biggest obstacle to reclaiming this long forgotten sense of sustainability, besides the economic upheaval it would trigger, would be the strain on our resources. If everyone made their own clothing out of wool collected from local sheep, that would mean a lot of sheep for every single person in the world. Going from where we are now, as in our heavy reliance on synthetic materials, to this kind of local sustainability would be a huge jump. A lot of space is required to live organically and sustainably, and to grow and produce products properly. Current industrial and societal practices have all but used up this space and the resources and possibilities the space contains. It is beginning to seem like synthetics and industrially made objects, perhaps offset by local sustainability projects would be a fitting solution for our current crisis, or at the least be a good transition into true sustainability, if that is indeed possible. 

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Herman Miller Greenhouse

     Herman Miller’s Greenhouse project, lead by William McDonough, is one of the early examples of truly effective sustainable building projects. Built in 1993, the building features 295,000 square feet of factory and office space near Herman Miller’s Headquarters in western Michigan. By this time in 1993, Herman Miller had already established itself as a forward thinking, environmentally conscious company. In the early 1980’s, the company had already begun investigating issues dealing with sustainable wood products and forestry, and indoor air quality issues that were arising in their facilities. Also, in 1984, after deciding to no longer use rosewood in their signature Eames chair (rosewood being a rare breed of trees which only grows in endangered tropical rainforests), Herman Miller received public acclaim for this radical move.

    The purpose of the Greenhouse project was to provide a refined and sophisticated, yet pleasing space for all the workers, including those in the offices and those in the factory setting, and to have ample amounts of fresh air and sunlight. There was to be easy navigation between all the parts of the complex, as to have a very open environment, and a direct link with the natural environment that the building is situated in. This would require having “natural features such as wetlands and swales that purify storm water runoff” as well as “providing habitat for local birds, flowers and grasses”.  The result would be as follows: “A measured increase in productivity, a measured increase in the degree of job satisfaction, and a measured array of positive social and ecological impacts.”

    The building project went on to win Business Weeks’ first ever “Good Design is Good Business” award for its achievements, which were not only environmentally beneficial, but also economically sound as well.

For More information on this project:

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Product Life Span

There is a notion about the corporate side of design that is as follows: in order to make more profit companies churn out more of the same product (with slight alterations, usually aesthetic ones) every so often to keep people interested in the product and to make more money. Usually these products have a short life span and are not meant to last a long time, depending on what the product is perhaps only a few years or less.

The first mp3 Player I owned, I got when I was a sophomore in high school. I could have very easily bought an Apple brand I-Pod, but I got a slightly better deal on a Sony one. I really like the Sony mp3 player, it had a simple and clean design, and also had an aluminum casing. Over the course of the 5 plus years I had it, I dropped it countless times, spilt stuff on it, left it in sweltering hot cars in the dead of summer, and so on. It never showed any signs malfunction, never decreased in battery life, nothing. I only recently got a new mp3 player with more memory and better tech functions, not because my old one stopped working. I’ve talked to a great deal of people who have owned I-Pods and almost all of them have had several problems. Most problems concerned troubles linking to a computer, battery malfunctions, or just poor construction, I guess I-pods do not handle drops and spills too well. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who has heard all the problems people have been having with the I-Phone, It seems like nearly everyone I have talked to who has one is on their second or third one, because of their old ones not holding up well and breaking so easily.

When I decided it was finally time to buy a new mp3 player, I of course went back to the Sony store. It was then that I was met with some very upsetting news: Sony had reduced their mp3 player line to only a handful of low memory players, for the casual listener. Mp3 players like the one I had bought from them years before, were no longer being made by Sony. Apple had beaten Sony out of the mp3 player war. Was the very reason I was so in love with Sony’s product the very reason they had been decimated by Apple?

                In my experience, Sony made a very nice product, especially in comparison to Apple’s. But Apple’s less righteous approach to business and products won out in the end. I was left puzzled by this. Why can’t an honest approach to product making also be a lucrative one? In the future, as companies are pressured by consumer awareness to make sustainable products, the main issue will surely be finding a way to align the interests of business, product, and certainly sustainability.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Talk to Me

This past spring, I was eagerly searching for a summer internship. I had finally landed an interview with a New York based design firm. I bused down to Manhattan for my interview, it was going well, and they were showing me products they had worked on in the past, mostly children’s toys and electronics. I was caught off guard when I was shown a few pictures of their current venture, the one that I, if I got the job, would be primarily working on. It was a vibrator, but not just any old vibrator. This one, fittingly named the “Talk2Me”, had a very special feature. It could hook up to any audio source, I-pod, radio, even a microphone, (all wirelessly of course), and vibrate in rhythm with the sound projected. “Bass and treble are divided so you can feel the difference between the strong pumping bass and the tickle of the treble. Use it as a standard vibe or with your favorite song, your lover’s voice, a podcast, or your boyfriend’s video game." (

                I wondered how something like this was ever conceived. Was it simply just the next evolutionary step in the greater context of vibrator design? Or was it the work of some well informed designers who were able to tap into a broader cultural consciousness? Then I began to wonder if this object, like countless other hastily designed products before it, was an over eager use of new technology, one lacking much consideration outside of the initial excitement of new capabilities. So many designs, it seems, are dictated by what technology is new and current. Such as with the advent of computer based design software, where all of the sudden it was possible to easily design and produce products with curvy organic forms. Karim Rashid capitalized on this niche quite well. His designs were clearly influenced by the newly found ease at which he could design elegant, voluptuous forms with the aid of computer software. Some of his designs seem a bit arbitrary, nice looking without a reason outside of their visual vocabulary. This is definitely one scenario, but how about the other. Did the creators of the Talk2Me consider the current state of pop culture? Surely they have. The “I-podization” of the world undoubtedly led to the creators tapping into this trend, or dare I say revolution, for their new vibrator concept. In the case of the Talk2Me, it seems to me (after a bit of reflection) that new technology allowed the designers to thoughtfully integrate a huge pop culture movement into their vibrator. The designers must have been intrigued by new technology, but they were able to use it in a well considered way, in accordance with current trends.

                As it turns out, I didn’t get the vibrator internship. I often wonder how it would have been if I did get it, and how delightfully well rounded my portfolio would have been. Maybe next summer.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Accessibility of Good Design

The other day, while researching a project for my advanced studio class, I found my way in to the store “Design Within Reach”. I was there to take a few photographs and a couple of measurements, and to draw a few sketches. I have been in to Design Within Reach several times in the past, recalling each time being inspired by the objects the store contained.  As the name implies, good design isn’t far away or hard to get, in fact it is right there at your fingertips. Unfortunately, this doesn’t exactly seem to be the case. In my observation, good design is, in fact, quite expensive and inaccessible to the masses.

                The idea of good design being reserved for the upper class and those who are higher up on the economic ladder is not a new one. In the days of early America, it would usually be only the head of the family who would sit in a hand crafted, well made chair. The other members of the family would usually sit in much less desirable and significantly more primitive stools. In this day and age, however, with much more advanced production technologies, cheaper production costs, and so on, why is it that good design is still reserved for those lucky few? Can good design exist in conjunction with cheap or accessible design?

                This past summer, a few weeks before returning to school for the start of the fall semester, I was reading a new design book. While thumbing through the nearly three hundred pages of images and text, I noticed a lamp made out of translucent orange rubber that could be bent and distorted in to a variety of different, unusual shapes. I immediately fell in love with the object. A little later, I went on the internet to find out more about it. After a little bit of research I found the lamp in question on the company website. It retailed for one hundred and ten dollars. Relatively speaking, that is probably about an average price for a high design object from a name brand, in this case it was the Italian company Luceplan. I was feeling a little bit disheartened by the cost, but I decided not to quit just yet. I continued on to Ebay on a whim, searched for the lamp and found one, just one, up for bid. At that point, only one other person had put up a bid and the lamp was up to a whopping five dollars. With only a day or so left in the bidding war, I decided to place my bid. I put twenty dollars on the line, which was enough to make me the highest bidder. In a few hours I was informed I won the lamp (which was brand new, by the way) for a mere twelve dollars and fifty cents, plus a four dollar shipping and handling fee. In five days, I had the lamp plugged in in my bedroom wall outlet warming me up with its soft orange glow. Sixteen fifty was a reasonable price for what I received, a simple molded rubber shell, a light bulb, and an electrical cord.

                An incredibly simple lamp it was. Far more minimalist in concept, materials, etc. that, say, my desk lamp (twenty dollars from Ikea) or my floor lamp (twenty five dollars from Home Depot). All of these lamps that I own accomplish their jobs just fine, one not superior in any way that the other. Why then, did one cost originally over four times as much as the others?

                Some might say that it is because of the name brand that it costs so much. But I refuse to believe that the answer is as simple as that. I had certainly never seen a lamp quite like the one I had just purchased. Perhaps it is good design because it is new and innovative, but shouldn’t simple and therefore cost effective be included in that description? A huge part of good design, I believe, is that it moves forward the current design dialogue, provides innovative solutions, is entirely functional and aesthetically pleasing, but also sustainable, cost efficient, and reasonable in its creation. Can an object be considered good design if it is awful for the environment, or unattainably expensive or rare? Can a diamond encrusted sofa, comfort and looks aside, ever be considered good design? I’d have to argue no under most, if not all circumstances. It’s just a bit to unattainable, I feel, to have a genuine or meaningful contribution to the design world in the noblest sense. It may bring something new to the table, but that alone doesn’t make it good.

                It seems to me that good design and effective use of materials and cost should go hand in hand and be one in the same. Imagine an object so elegant and efficient, yet remarkably minimal in every sense of the word. This kind of object would be naturally inexpensive and entirely accessible. It would use less material, cheaper and cleaner processes, and it would work well. Cheap while being effective seems like true good design in my book.

Sunday, October 19, 2008