Monday, March 28, 2005

Better by Design?


(I wrote this as an article in the New Zealand Herald 3 March)

I wonder if anyone in the history of the world actually woke up one morning and thought: Today I shall design something truly bad. Not just bad, terrible. Can I see a show of hands? Didn't think so.

And yet there are plenty of dreadful products. Who's to say what is better or worse though? Who gets to make the value judgment? Eastern Europe was filled with dreadful Trabant cars - possibly the worst thing ever designed - but they mobilised millions of Eastern Bloc motorists. On the other hand, Fiat's ultra-designed Multipla makes babies cry at the mere sight of its grotesque profile. Is the Fiat better by design?


For better or worse, design is inherent in every manufactured good and every fungible experience. I'm going to stick my neck out here, no one in their right mind sets out to create experiences that suck.

When designers promote the idea of Better by Design and invite business people to $1500 dollar-a-head, government-subsided lectures and cocktail parties, I hear the gentle ringing of alarm bells - or are they cash registers?

I'm wary of sloganeering especially when the slogans are expressed grandly for the elite using the taxman's plunder. The concepts of design and better are ambiguous on their own, let alone uttered in the pithy maxim "better by design" which suggests orthodoxy and the dead hand of central planning. Beware of intellectualism. Alessi, a successful design-led businesses, is premised on design as fun. Their Philippe Starck-designed orange squeezer was functionally useless, but it squeezes one's thinking about why an object should conform to a Germanic modernist norm.


People aren't rational. Searching for an absolute model of perfection is a fool's errand. The Better by Design conference makes much of Formay's excellent Life Chair. But where is the After Life chair? I discarded a Herman Miller Aeron in favour of the Life Chair ... yes it's true - I sit around. But there are aspects of the chair I'd like to see improved. Perhaps when it comes down from its pedestal?

Let's celebrate the bunts that keep the game moving as well as the home runs. It is easy to be convinced that media darlings like Formay and Icebreaker are ne plus ultra. Or that high profile design behemoths like Ideo are more worthy than the hard-working, one-man band whose budgets are minuscule, barely covering costs and student debts.

We have width and depth of design in New Zealand - what if we could interconnect at grass roots and create a fast-moving, interactive market for design rather than a titanic, strategic, elitist, schmooze-fest.

If Better By Design becomes a centrifuge to separate and discard the flavours and smells of local creativity for a homogenised, normalised, internationally standardised future, shrink wrapped into the worthy, cerebral, rational and utterly predictable (boring), then we'll be infamous for our conferences and junkets.

Let's be famous for problem-solving ideas - executed to within an inch of their lives.

Some Links for this blog

Formway - Creators of the excellent Life chair
Better by Design site

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