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Designers are inherently creative. And with creativity comes a thirst for knowledge and experimentation. We think:

“How can we make this object better? How many ways are there to solve this problem and which one is better? What can I do with this material to push it further?”

And those are excellent questions. Necessary questions. However, some designers ask themselves the wrong questions. Questions like:

“How can I get this object or design to get a lot of attention? How can I become more popular as a designer?”

And their answer often leads them in the same direction, creating a design idiosyncrasy. A fad. A fad is a temporary fashion, notion, manner of conduct,etc., especially one followed enthusiastically by a group. But good design is not temporary, it’s not ethereal. Good design is good from inception and remains that way as time goes by. So, can good design come out of a fad?

I think it can. Sometimes somethings will fit perfectly into the fad, but came to be that way for no other reason than it was just the correct solution for that particular thing in that particular time. The right reason. This right reason has more probability to achieves timeless design as a result, and timeless design is a guideline of good design.

There are many fads in industrial design, like in any other type of design. They come in different shapes, sizes, colors and materials. Literally. But there’s one that I feel has been abused, and it’s a shame, because as an architect, I have a deep appreciation for this material.

Concrete

Concrete is a material that works very good under pressure. It’s very strong, so it’s used in construction, to make resistant buildings. But like any material, it’s there to be experimented with. So obviously, industrial designers did.

One of the pioneers in design with concrete is Swiss born industrial designer Willy Guhl, who began experimenting with Eternit, a trademark for a brand of fibre cement that is wrongly used as a generic term. With this fibre cement, Willy made two planters: The Elephant Ear and Time.

Elepahnt Ear by Willy Guhl

Elephant Ear by Willy Guhl

Time by Willy Guhl

Time by Willy Guhl

Concrete is not a crazy choice as a material for a planter. In fact, concrete works perfect for planters. It’s strong so it won’t break with the pressure the soil exerts on the pot. It holds some moisture in, so the soil will draw moisture from the concrete, and pass it along to the plants. And it can be molded into different shapes easily. So this wasn’t a very risky experiment, but still, it was one of the first, so it’s still an experiment that deserves merit.

In 1954, Guhl designed his Loop Chair for outdoors, also made of Eternit. Another successful experiment in design: Outdoors furniture needs to be resistant. Concrete is resistant and even gets more personality as time passes and it’s exposed to the elements. It chips, grows mold, and changes color. But it remains. Also, the chair is very thin, which makes it lighter, in case it needs to be moved from one place to another. Furthermore, its simple design means manufacturing is easy and cost effective. So, personally, this particular application of concrete works, and even if it didn’t, it was an experiment that needed to be made by someone at some point. The Loop Chair has its merit just for being one of the first experiments done with concrete. The fact that it’s actually a successful experiment gives it more merit still.

But I think there’s a time to experiment, and a time to apply the knowledge acquired by the experiments. And for me, it feels like the experimentation phase is over for concrete. We as designers have a responsibility to know the advantages and limitations of each material, so we can use them accordingly and concrete has been with us for such a long time that all sorts of things have been made from it that by now, we must have a good understanding of how it works, and when and where we can apply it legitimately and naturally, without being frivolous and forcing our whims on the design.

Loop Chair by Willy Guhl

Loop Chair by Willy Guhl designed in 1954

So how is it that frivolous or good design comes to be? I assume there are other reasons, but an important one comes from the designer’s motivation and purpose. As stated earlier, a good designer will ask him or herself questions that focus directly (and indirectly too) on the design or object and its relationship with the user:

“How can I make this better as an object and at the same time improve it’s interaction with the user?”

The designer acts selflessly for the greater good. The good of good design. On the other hand, a not so good designer will ask:

“How can I make a name for me as a designer? How can I use my designs to get me a lot of attention?”

They can be seen a bit as narcissists whose priorities are backwards. Their intentions are not to make a timeless, functional, beautiful design. Because sometimes, for practical purposes and because it’s natural, all that we humans perceive, all that we focus on is attractiveness. Designers know this, so they focus solely on making something that’s exclusively pretty. They know (because they are one) that we humans are notoriously shallow creatures and beauty sells. And it gets talked about. So they completely disregard other important things like function, or in this case, the properties of the material they chose to work with. Is the material a right fit for the job? Does it have the properties needed to fulfil its objective? Will it work like it’s supposed to or better?

Sometimes, for some designers, this just simply isn’t important. As long as their work gets a lot of attention, they are happy. The goal for them was never to make something incredible (of course this is always the goal for a designer, but it has to be the MAIN goal, not a secondary one), but to get attention. And it’s easy to get attention. As easy, for example, as taking one material that is made specifically for one thing and applying it to another. This easy hack (I think it’s an appropriate word) can leave most of us in awe and wanting more.

It’s in our nature to be curious. We like new things. Things that surprise us. Novelties. And the value to a novelty, obviously, is that it’s new. So we like to be the first ones in the know. And the novelties becomes social currency, which nowadays is so important that it’s second only to money. So if we come upon something that we perceive as cool, or that we know others will perceive as cool, we want it, and we want to share it with others. We want to let them know that we found this cool thing that (hopefully) makes us cool by association. And so shallow design, little by little, becomes a plague. And worst. It becomes generally accepted as good design. If we see it everywhere, it must mean it’s good, because popular is always good right? I don’t agree.

A design can be said to be good according to some criteria. For me, it’s very simple. Design is good when:

  • It is beautiful
  • It respects the planet
  • It is timeless
  • It has a purpose
  • It works for everyone

In order for these criteria to apply, a number of things must happen, and one of those is that the material has to be right for the purpose it’s intended to. A good designer will never force his or her whims on a project (of course in some cases, forcing a whim on a project can lead to a genius solution, but we are not discussing exceptions to rules).

And concrete is definitely not always right for the job. But some designers take a different approach. They think:

“Why not make concrete work and look exactly how I need it?”

So they alter it and transform it into something that is not concrete. Concrete is a mixture of a coarse aggregate (e.g., gravel), a fine aggregate (e.g., sand), cement and water. When this mixture dries, it hardens like a rock and retains the shape it was given. This is the nature of concrete. It’s a hard, coarse, heavy, strong material. Is concrete flexible? Definitely not. So what’s going on with the Luna concrete iPhone skin by Posh-Craft and Realize pictured below? Is this concrete?

Luna-Concrete-iPhone-Skin-4

Luna Concrete Skin for iPhone

posh-craft-x-realize-luna-concrete-skin-for-iphone

Inspiration for design or just an obvious connection made after the design?

The image with the moon (above) brings me to another point. Trivial designs with concrete are shallow, hence they shallow concept behind it, if any. Is a concept (strong or weak) necessary in order to make good design? I don’t think so. But designers mistakenly sometimes think of ourselves as artists. And design is not art. Design has a function other than to evoke feelings. And in our confusion we want to give meaning to everything we create, even if we know we just did it for the sake of it, for the experiment, for the pleasure. So we come up with mediocre concepts after the design project is finished. The iPhone skin is called “luna”, which means moon in spanish. Is it likely the skin was named before it was produced for the first time? Maybe, but I would bet is was named after the realization that it looked like the moon’s surface with all it’s air bubbles (craters, allegedly) and imperfections. Imperfections that are natural in concrete. The connection between the surface of the moon and something made out of concrete is too obvious.

How about these concrete cat beds? Does the concrete bed have any resemblance to the Hepper Pod Bed for cats at the bottom?

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Concrete Cat Bed by Geerke Sticker

Hepper-Cat-Pod-1

Cat Pod Bed by Hepper

When this was brought to light, the designer’s response was:

Geerke Sticker

This is a very obvious and poor explanation, justification or concept (whatever you want to call it). But there’s a need to explain the design. And when we want to give an improvised meaning to something that wasn’t conceived with a meaning in mind, the results can be counterproductive.

The example below is a packaging for a balm called CNCRT (concentrate) designed by Japanese designer Yoshifumi Yokohama, who says:

“CNCRT is a solid packaging like a concrete building. During this project we also found inspiration in buildings created by TADAO ANDO.”

CNCRT Packaging by Yoshifumi Yokoyama

CNCRT Packaging by Yoshifumi Yokoyama

And these are some buildings by Tadao Ando, also Japanese:

Tadao Ando 1KOSINO-HOUSE

Can this really be said to be inspiration? Or is it just our mixup between art and design acting up? We force a concept on anything and everything we make because we are afraid we’ll be deemed as superficial designers, when in reality there is nothing wrong with superficial design. Not as long as it’s accepted for what it is and doesn’t try to pose as something more deep and intellectual.

Another example is the concrete smartphone stand designed by Oitenta pictured below:

Oitenta Concrete iPhone Stand

Oitenta Concrete iPhone Stand

Is concrete really the best material for this project or is it just a whim by the designer. Surely the latter one, since the also overused geometric shapes suggest that Oitenta likes to follow trends. Is the coarse concrete right for an iPhone stand? The iPhone has a delicate aluminium exterior that is easily scratched. The designer’s solution? Seal it with a polyurethane varnish. So what’s the point of using a material if it’s inherent properties have to be disguised and artificially handled so it works as we need it to?

Concrete’s beauty lies in it’s honesty. It’s a material that is at its most beautiful when it’s at its rawest form. When it’s left alone and its features like texture and color shine through. Below, a concrete version of Le Corbusier’s Arm Chair. In it, we can see concrete being honest.

Concrete Arm Chair by Stefan Zwicky

Concrete Arm Chair by Stefan Zwicky

Concrete chair by Stefan Zwicky based on Le Corbusier’s famous Arm Chair.And we can also see that concrete is not the right material for the job. However, this chair should be viewed as a sculpture, a work of art. Not design. Here’s that mixup again. Stefan Zwicky, the maker of the chair, is a designer working in Zurich. In his website we can find multiple furniture and object designs, including this chair. And we can find it under the word “design” in the menu.

But design is not art. And we better learn and start telling the difference soon because the line between design and art should not be blurry. It should be crystal clear. And only when we learn that is when we will be able to produce good design. Design with purpose.


About the Author : César Bejarano – César is an industrial designer by profession, and an architect by title.  He is Mexican and he’s de designer of Cara de Planta, a DIY vertical gardening system, among many other things.  He’s also the editor of Against Design, the blog where this article was originally published and a collaborator with Smashing Magazine and some Medium publications.  Feel free to contact César here.

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A Bugs Take | Insects Affecting my Design

 

Floating Corpses, Gelatin Silver Print, 30"x45" By : Catherine Chalmers

Floating Corpses, Gelatin Silver Print, 30″x45″ By : Catherine Chalmers

 

After doing a short stint in Costa Rica, I headed out to freelance in Bangkok during late 2014, soon enough I landed in Singapore. These experiences didn’t have much in common in terms of projects given, but lately I’ve noticed a strange bridge between them, the fact that I’ve had to design things roach proof, I wonder, is this a part of the “developing world design experience?”

These projects include kitchen items, public structures, and outdoor furniture; you would think these items have to be immune to insects, right? Wrong! Plenty of them are not. Since I can’t elaborate details of these projects due to confidentially, let me talk about experiences I reflected on while trying to tackle the issue.

 

Pest as User Experiences

My cousin, in the mid 2000’s was teaching in Costa Rica, the teachers’ room had a coffee machine used every morning by the major body of employees, no one wanted to clean the thing, roughly a year passed and one day someone finally suggests, “hey, its about time to clean that old filter”. When they open this coffee machine up, guess…..guess what they found, a cockroach so washed out by the daily boiled water that it had turned as transparent as Hilary Clintons emails ( Perhaps a molt result: a shed exoskeleton ). The brand of the coffee machine will be left out of the story, which my cousin tells with humor, she goes on about how the teachers didn’t drink coffee for over a month. Supposedly the staff didn’t replace the machine but instead began to clean it, perhaps what they should have been doing in the first place.

Tale of the tape, you do not want pests as part of a product experience. Research in the pest management field introduced me to something called ‘aesthetic injury levels’, meaning the individuals tolerance threshold of acceptable viewed pests, studies show that different societies/countries/communities vary in threshold. Good for me South East Asia is a bit more tolerant, however, it depends on the person.

Here is a personal story from Malaysia, I’m out alone on a weekend lunch having Thai food, behind me is a couple who just arrived and ordered BBQ, minutes later they get a platter full of fresh veggies, seafood and meats, along with a mini portable grill that the waiter switches on the flame. Not 5 minute pass before the man jumps up with cell phone in hand yelling “WHAT THE FUCK!! ” and knocks his chair back at the sight of at least twenty baby roaches trying to escape the heat, they crawl on his food, near his girlfriend, on his beer. Alarmed, the manager comes over, filled with aggression the customer immediately threatens to sue or post his findings on a popular local blog “YOU WANT THAT FINE ON YOUR HEAD!!” he spits out turning as red as can be while making what I felt was a overdramatic scene “ WHAT WILL YOU DO, WHAT WILL YOU DO” he asks or commands. The manager was clearly holding back anger but complied with his suggestion and gently stated “I’m sorry sir, you will not pay any of this, very sorry sir”. I simply returned to my meal and forgot about this incident, but it was one month later that I’m in a factory with a R&D lead telling me that he wants venting added into his machine but doesn’t know what to do about the roaches. “It’s not that bad that they get in, its that they get out…..these roaches make their way in overnight, and when morning comes and the machine starts to operate, they either hide inside or scatter along the floor of the kitchen…Can you make them stay in there?” he asks me. I turn to my engineer and repeat something from Wired.com I learned two days before “did you know a adult roach can go through a 3mm gap”, he replies in brainstorm fashion” how about foam, or wiring, maybe..”.

 

Finding Closure

Through brainstorming we quickly began to rule out ideas that sounded too ‘gadgety ‘ as in building an entire other product within a product to stop an infestation, think Bug monitors, pesticides, traps. We even thought about ‘putting a bird on it’, would bugs get scared at the sight of a predator? Bad ideas, gadgety, costly, bad ideas, followed by the acceptable idea directions, such as having a slippery coating or finish, adding a light or color that disturbs them but also adds ambiance to the machine, and limiting or patterning the venting to discourage access.

Our research showed that roaches do like to huddle together, and they are reared for some time, if you limit the access for mama bear, little baby bear is less likely to venture. Roaches don’t want to be alone, their social, they want to go where the party is, and the after party, the after after party, then tell others of the colony to join them the next night.

One should understand the natural movement function of roaches, they navigate with their antennae by touching their surrounding with them, when they feel something they tend to turn away from it, if we can create a structure that limits slits and crevices and finds a way to lead the roach through a space and back out via a designated exit we might have a maze like solution. Foam to block them can give off algae and fungus, wiring mesh can collect dust, narrowing spaces can lead to difficulty in disassembly/ higher costs/ and lack of heat sink or ventilation.

 

 

It’s important to note that these critters actually changed my design, made the product different, and made the design process more challenging because they can invade your user experience. I’m not sure this is a ‘authentic developing world design experience’ or a ‘equator line design issue’ but we might consider. Thanks to these projects every time mechanical engineering requires vents in any product a picture of a roach crawling inside comes to mind. One of these days my boss is going to notice I exclude vents from all my sketches…

 

About the Author : Herald Ureña – Umaña is a American industrial designer currently working in Singapore, his work can be viewed here , feel free to contact him at herald.urena@gmail.com. He is a graduate of College for Creative Studies in Detroit and has done work for clients such as Coca-Cola, LG, P & G, Marvel, Singapore Government Bodies, Intel, and startups.

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Putting the human back into ‘human-centric’ design

Blind

Screened devices, programs and apps are often touted as ‘human-centric’; after all, we exist in the middle of their screens. Swipe technology, rounded corners, and dimmed or faded lighting are purported to humanize the mediums in which we type words and interact with pixelated images and faces millions of miles away. Often, we can use a device without consciously realizing we are a part of the interaction. The products are designed for us, by us; they must therefore be centered around us, right?

Inside the screens, cogs churn away at algorithms based on data that we input. Apps are designed to measure our health, match dates, find the quickest way to maintain a vegan lifestyle. We find these apps intuitive, smart, intellectual, almost. Your iPhone can quickly sync your email contacts to the number on a business card, while Google Maps directs you to an address in an unfamiliar location. Fitbits measure the distance you walk and WhatsApp the hours you talk. The Internet of Things (IoT) extends almost into the realm of sci-fi and George Orwell novels as more and more interlinking technologies are created for our personal ease. The question is: how could technology-informed product design truly become more helpful, rather than adding multiple ‘helpful’ features?

The opportunity lies in what screen-based designs cannot often offer – true human- centricity, where the user is at the center of the design. Yes, many apps, programs, gadgets and games are intuitive, smart, and helpful in achieving everyday tasks and goals. Yet these gadgets are simply devices interacting with one another, an IoT with the user a void in the middle – which makes them, by default, not truly ‘human-centric’. The key lies in the word ‘user’ or ‘consumer’ – although we have to touch and press buttons to use a program, app or gadget, screen-based devices are often simply banks that output information in clever ways. You input your data, and a mathematical equation is displayed via several statistical methods. This model is based around service rather than interaction. For a product design to be human-centric, a product needs to deeply understand the people it serves. A truly human-centric product works with the user to jointly form, rather than calculate, the outcome for a larger societal purpose.

Design Thinking is a methodology for developing technology from a human point of view. If you take this line of Design Thinking , you might expand the question of human-centricity into what it is that makes a product easy to interact with. What is it that humans need to experience to make a product design encounter memorable? Is it taste? Touch? Sound? A medley of the above? The burgeoning Virtual Reality (VR) industry is one example of a move towards sense mimicry as a way to make brand experiences memorable. IBM continues its search to enhance the sense of touch in its wares, with infrared and haptic technologies usually associated with physical objects outside the reach of the screen

added to their devices. Angles away from the screen to more physical forms of connection are gaining traction.

The Five Senses are playing a bigger role in upcoming product design. In order to engage, you have to stimulate; in order to stimulate, you have to reach past the instant gratification of the machine and into what we experience without even knowing it. Research hubs such as The Osaka Science and Technology Center have created industrial forums for the growing ”Five Senses Industry’’, with the goal of creating a “high quality, safe and secure society” benefitted by technology-based 3D objects – objects that you can hold, hear, taste and smell, as well as see. Greater attempts are being made at computerizing the brain’s architecture through neuromorphic chip technology that slots into your screen-based device. The deviation from the screen-based product is in no way complete, but the drive for a more authentic experience is compelling and an easy way to fit a well-designed product into your own personal narrative.

Several world class product design firms have developed Design Thinking frameworks to put the human at the center of emerging technologies. Kohlex, a California based product design firm for example, has developed what could be the best framework for new product development and design. Their framework puts the human at the center, between feasible technologies and economical product development. According to Kohlex founder Christian Mackin, human-centric design is only viable if it can be developed and manufactured cost effectively.

Of course, the best way to involve the five senses in product design is to use a product that already ticks many of the boxes, and add technology to that. Kohlex is currently designing a Bluetooth desk that does just that.  The connected desk moves with its occupant from a seated position, to standing, to seated again. The desk tracks the occupant’s fluidity of movement based on an accelerometer in their smartphone and then communicates to a microprocessor via Bluetooth to control linear actuators that move with rather than against the flow of the human body. In an Internet of Everything where reviews are king and personal preferences more accessible than ever, fitting around the consumer to support rather than void their presence is crucial. Adding value to the simplest of 3D objects can greatly impact user reviews and enhance the experience of using the product.

Amidst fields of products that are designed to give instant gratification and perfect the image on-screen only, technology that enhances everyday objects with a more human interaction, like desks, is an opportunity. Will you consider it in your next new product development session?

 

About the author:

Danielle Whitburn is an Account Director at a design agency in Auckland, New Zealand. She has managed several international brand launches over the past five years and views product innovation as a direct disciple of a strong brand. Visit her Behance page HERE

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