The Acceleration of Having More with Less
In a recent conversation with John Maeda over a meal of sushi, I remarked how a good designer has the ability to skillfully make use of their receptors that humans all share, when creating or improving man-made objects that surround us. Many people who go about their daily life are oblivious to the fact that everything they see, hear, touch or smell has a profound effect on their temperament. The city, the building, the room, the chair, the table and the sushi, are all interconnected, and equally influential. I am often surprised that this idea is often either neglected, not involved, forgotten or misunderstood during the process of commissioning, making and consuming goods. Consequently, the public, the consumer, the user (whatever you might call us) becomes oblivious to subtlety and simplicity, because our receptors are challenged by an ever greater dependence on marketplace ‘wow’ factors created by designers and delivered by manufacturers. A consumer may not know all reasons for desiring an object—but nevertheless, desire is there. The foundation for this desire is discovered with use and the appreciation acquired over time.
Going back to the sushi meal: If we think of the most primordial of activities like food intake, humans rely upon all their senses to establish whether the food they are about to eat is good or bad. When we first ‘see’ the meal we make a conscious decision as to whether it is suitable for its function. When we ‘touch’ it, its particular texture establishes its standard further. When we 'smell' it, it tells us whether it is good to eat. As we ‘taste’ it, we can further tell if it will poison us or satisfy us. And as we chew, we ‘hear’ the satisfaction of its consistency. Our senses that allow us to eat successfully are tools given to us at birth, and developed in early life so we can navigate our world. They protect us, and allow us to enjoy our experiences. If we think of objects, the common failure of contemporary design is assuming that when we use a coffee maker, sit on a chair, or walk into a room, that we switch off the senses that are not applicable to the activity at hand. Why should we associate sound with a coffee maker, or smell with a chair? In truth, every scale of every activity will be assessed by our senses, because as humans, our survival depends on it. The temperature of a wooden chair is very different to a plastic one, and it provides a different emotional feeling. The smell of each room differs, affecting our sensibility. The sound of different coffee makers contributes to our judgment of which will have the perfect brew.
Instead of involving and recognizing the complex receptors that humans have, we have become much too dominated by the visual. The sushi might well be beautiful to look at, but its beauty is not forced. It is what I call ‘resultant beauty’—beauty that is coincidental, a result of its existence rather than something applied to it. The simplicity of its content, its preparation and its presentation, does not overwhelm each corresponding sense. It feels natural even though, in the west, the thought of raw food is an unnatural concept. This is the essence of simplicity; it is being able to naturalize what at first might seem unnatural.
How does this idea translate into an object like a chair, or a coffee maker or something that involves more high technology? These are the objects that need more than ever to involve intelligent and appropriate design that engages, or at least registers the criteria of the senses.
Through the work of our studio Industrial Facility, we acknowledge that all things are dependent on each other. Rather than seeing contemporary life through an outdated Renaissance model, where everything is human-centered, self-contained and focused towards the human, instead we see that everything affects and communicates with each other, at times even independent of the human. This means seeing the world without imagining we can control it all. Imagine designing a printer or a coffee maker for the room that it sits in, the table that it is on, or the person operating it. This idea allows the evacuation of superfluous functions, and the abandonment of complexity, because it acknowledges what already exists, and doesn’t see a need for duplication or replication. The environment for an object, as much as its use, determines its form and content.
We recently designed a cordless telephone, and realised quite quickly that even though it had periods of being active and nomadic, the majority of its life was stationary and turned off. This inactivity became the starting point for the design. The turned-off state was seen as a possibility, rather than being a negative condition. It became a phone that does not constantly beckon to be turned on by the use of garish-coloured graphics or sexy ‘applied’ beauty—irrelevant visual grabbing devices that consider nothing of its actual life. Instead, the phone became a background object, but when needed, became alive. Why are so many electronic products, including phones painted silver? For instance, when you turn a TV off, you no longer need it, so why give it such foreground power? The ‘turned-off’ state of electronic products should be viewed as much a function of the product as anything else. Manufacturers put enormous energy into the marketing and sales of the product so that the decision-making moment of purchase gives the best chance of success. But the reality is that 99.9 percent of the product’s life is spent away from the shop. If the product is not bought, then it has ‘failed’ in commercial terms, but we should also understand that a product that damages our senses and lowers our surrounding life and our standards is failure of a far bigger magnitude.
Another point about dependence is that objects can start to share senses of tactility, smell, sound and so on. A designer does not have to ensure that the product should involve every sense for every condition, senses can be shared. And similarly, objects can start to have their own ability to see, and to taste. Imagine a camera that could also see, and adjust its focus accordingly: but of course, this already exists. It seems more and more, as technology continues to move ahead of design by involving the senses, that the role of the designer becomes also more and more vital. For they are the ones who must bring together the sum of parts—the functional, the aesthetic and the technological qualities of each project.
The process of involving dependence is first to understand that design is not always, as some might suggest, about invention or innovation. In design education and their school projects I still witness an immediate desire to invent, to try as hard as possible to break away from what already exists, regardless of whether what already exists works sufficiently well. For the student it is as if everything that came before is either wrong or inconsequential to the process. The idea of incremental steps, of small improvements and an understanding of history, seems of little concern. But like nature, incremental steps will always lead to a more realistic and ‘of this world’ feeling. In our office we still physically make everything that we conceive, in cardboard, plastics, anything that is appropriate for the task. We know that the majority of our work is essentially dealing with things the hand will be manipulating in some way. If you rely only on the computer, there is sometimes a tendency to make the designs quite expressive because the ability to do that is there, built into the tool. The computer is important, but it can only present one sense—the visual. It is extremely difficult to make things that are very simple and graceful on the computer because the screen by nature has luminosity, which is already quite expressive. If you make something out of cardboard your ability to appreciate the form and the simplicity of it becomes much easier—you don’t have to resort to any applied thought; it can actually be the thought.