catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 7 :: 2007.04.06 — 2007.04.20


The designed object

Part 3 of 3

Resurrection Issues

I would suggest that all of us here at this conference share a couple of general points of view, or have at least in some ways wrestled with what results in a somewhat contentious or skeptical relationship to objects—1) we are spiritual, and therefore aware of the moral and spiritual issues around ownership, consumerism, materialism, etc., and 2) that we have an environmental perspective that adds to our rejection of objects, that we try to eliminate objects from our lives, and that although we continue to buy more things, it is with great resentment, almost as if holding our breath.

Wendell Berry seems to also share this point of view, and he has a defined standard for technological innovation:

The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better that the one it replaces.
It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
It should not displace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

It is hard to argue with these points.

During my study for my MA I did a lot of ‘navel gazing’, and it dawned on me that my profession, what I considered to be my very vocation was directly at odds with the values I held very closely.  It was about creating more stuff, for stuff’s sake, because the capitalist engine runs on people buying more stuff, and industrial design’s goal is to make that stuff ever more enticing to buy.  At that time, a new director for the program arrived—he had worked with Tearcraft, a division of TearFund that works with makers in the developing world bringing things to the UK for sale, a bit like MCC’s Ten Thousand Villages.  I put the question to him.  I don’t remember his response exactly but the spirit of it informs my work today.  He said:   

Firstly we are physical and emotional beings, we will always need ‘things’ in our daily lives—furniture to sit on, clothes to wear, buildings to live in, etc.  Regardless of how virtual our world may become, we will need things. 

Secondly, things will always wear out, and need to be replaced; regardless of how well made it is, it will wear out eventually.

And thirdly, people are emotional, and these things that we need     around us need to contribute in a positive way to our lives.  They need to enrich us, and feed us, not harm us. Back to Henry Dreyfuss, they need to simply make us happier. 

The vital role for industrial design is to ensure those things that surround us do feed us, and that when their lives are over, they can be replaced, repaired, refurbished or disposed of responsibly.   In addition to this is the issue of consumerism, and in my work these are the core issues for me—how to practice resurrection while creating still more objects in this world full of objects.

What I have come to, is to think about these issues applied in two ways: sustainably executed, and sustainably conceived.  The execution refers mainly to how it is manufactured, material use, recyclability, etc.  It assumes that the product’s definition is fixed, and we need to make this ‘thing’ more responsibly.  ‘Sustainably conceived’ refers to the broader question of “yes. we can design and make it, but should we?”  It looks more at the function the object is serving, and seeks the best response to that function, and then executes that sustainably.  While studying for my MA, the Royal Society of Arts issued a call for entries for projects around this subject.  A colleague of mine and I responded to a brief calling for the design of a domestic can crusher, the sort that sits in your kitchen and crushes cans prior to them going to the curb.  When we looked at the entire picture, we found that all garbage trucks crushed garbage once it was picked up, and that the net effect of this can crusher was to reduce the number of garbage bags used, and in a minor way possibly raise some awareness of waste.  Beyond that, it was another consumer product, trying to find a need to solve. Our response was to presume that if you have a can opener to open a can to get at its contents, you could open the other end of the can, thereby eliminating any of its structure, and collapsing it by hand.  This proposal culminated in a logo that could be applied to all cans and conceptually address the end goal of the can crusher without the production of another object.

William Mcdonough, an architect with very strong sustainability credentials has said:

I am going to speak about the concept of design as the first signal of human intention….  If we understand that design leads to the manifestation of human intentions and if what we make with our hands is to be sacred and honour he earth that gives us life, then the things we make must not only rise from the ground but return to it soil to soil, water to water, so everything that is received from the earth can be freely given back without doing harm to any living system.  This is ecology.  This is good design.

He goes on to talk about his colleague Michael Braungart, a German chemist who talks of three distinct product types: first, consumables, eaten used or thrown away; second, products of service known as durables—cars, TV’s, etc.; and third, unmarketables like nuclear waste, dioxins—essentially bi-products.

The key to the first category is to return all elements back to the earth where they can become food for other living organisms, plastic bags should bio degrade, all packaging should be recyclable, furniture should be made from lignin, potato peels and technical enzymes so they can safely be returned to the earth.

The key to the second category is a move from buying products to buying services.  This is where the product is in fact providing a service—light fixtures provide light, CD’s supply music, cars provide transportation, and houses provide shelter and home.  Here in Toronto there is an autoshare program where you can rent cars hourly.  Toronto also has bike share programs that are widely used in the Netherlands and around the world.  Commercial carpets are also sometimes handled this way, as tiles—heavy traffic areas can be replaced more often than low traffic areas.  An interesting benefit to this approach is that it would eliminate the need for planned obsolescence.  It becomes an economic imperative to make the products last as long as possible.  If your business is providing this service, you want the objects providing that service to provide it for as long as possible.  This presents fascinating challenges for designers.

The key to the third category is to eliminate them.

The way ahead

The way ahead lies in seeking different values in objects, and perceiving in them what they are about.

Perceiving manufactured realities in what you’re about to buy is a complex and often difficult thing to do, even for those who know what to look for.  Consider as an example a pair of suspension forks for a mountain bicycle costing $5 that I saw for sale some time ago.  This is a strong indicator of abuse somewhere in the system.  It is not reasonable that an object of such complexity can come to be for sale in my neighborhood, with the cost of living (wages, rent, taxes etc.) such that it is still profitable to sell this thing at such a price.  I think we have to ask ourselves whether the cheapest is the best, and not simply from a quality perspective.  Follow the route of these forks made in China: from the shop shelf, they came on trucks from distribution hubs, on trucks again, on ships, on trucks yet again, to a factory where they are assembled by hand out of parts possibly made on site but more likely made in yet another factory that is turning processed materials into components.  This is a disposable product manufactured unsustainably. 

Consider organic apples for sale in Ontario, grown in New Zealand—they lose their sustainability credentials when you consider what it took to get them to the shop in Ontario.

Victor Papanek in Design For The Real World speaks of “Kleenex culture” referring to the disposability of things.  He goes so far as to make a connection between throw away tissues and throw away marriages and even lives.  This seems at first glance to be a bit of a stretch, but I think the implications of mass disposability over generations can have a larger impact than we may be aware of.

A number of years ago, Teknion Furniture Systems, an office furniture manufacturer, did a life cycle analysis of one of its cubicle workstations to determine where the greatest environmental impact of the product was.  The surprising result was that painting the steel had the largest impact.  The steel is powder coated, and the ovens to back the paint finish, in Toronto, were powered by electricity produced in coal-fired stations, and that combination resulted in the greatest impact.  This is impossible to see without a detailed analysis, but gives an idea of the complexity of the issue.

There are so many examples of poor things that we could go on and on.  There are also many great examples around us that are pointing at the way forward.

As a counter to the disposability and commoditization of objects, Philips in the Netherlands did a design exploration a few years ago around objects as carriers of meaning.  They tried to identify what carries meaning, and develop objects to capture that in a meaningful way.  One captured scents, another sounds, not unlike picture frames for other senses.

Domus, an Italian architecture and design magazine, did a feature in 2006 called “Super Normal”, with Jasper Morrison and Naota Fukasawa: “Looking at things that are anonymously Super Normal means you are looking at the feel of a thing, at the relationship that has built up around its shape.  I think it’s a bit like feeling with other senses even though you’re looking at it with your eyes.”

Interface carpets have taken environmental responsibility to new levels in manufacturing.  Particularly in carpet making, which is a notoriously nasty business.  Ray Anderson, CEO, has implemented many strategies to reduce energy usage, waste, and resource usage in making their carpets.  The irony is that they have found this to be profitable, too—it required investment, but it is more than paying off in savings, increasing profitability as a result.

Nike have launched a line of shoes they are calling “Considered”.  From their website:

The Nike Considered mission is simple: We’re dedicated to product design that delivers more from less. That offers unparalleled performance while using less energy to make. Features innovative cushioning systems, yet produces less waste. Looks great, yet requires fewer chemicals in production. Nike Considered is an entirely new perspective—where innovation meets conservation. And it’s a central part of the next chapter of Nike’s corporate responsibility evolution.

The Bo Boolo table 1995 is more interesting for its history than as an object:

Every seven years in Europe, there is a fad for wood that is supposed to be an ecology fad—they cut more and more wood "for ecological reasons," which is deeply stupid. That's why I made this table with the National Office of Forests, and said to people, "OK, once more you will see this picture in a mail order catalogue," and you will say, "Oh, what a nice table—so chic." And you will pay for it, but you will receive just the top and the legs. "Oh, something's missing!" But you get a map of France, and on it is a letter that says you will receive the final piece of the table when you go with your map to this forest with an ax. You will have a discussion about the forest with the warden, and he will give you this branch. Then you go back home, and you will have your table. And, it's interesting because people want wood, but they don't know what wood is, they don't know what a forest is, they don't know you have to get wood by cutting down trees. So they come back with a real piece of nature, and now they know. 


These are just a few examples of what can happen when there is desire and creativity.  There are so many more examples, and the encouraging thing is that the as time goes by, there are more and more.  There is a ground swell coming.

A vision for sustainability

In the early days of sustainable product design, much of the results were appealing on an ideological level, not so much an aesthetic, functional or even durable level.  For sustainability to have any real impact it needs to almost be conspicuously absent from the product.  Sacrifices in aesthetics and functionality are not acceptable.  When working on a project a number of years ago, the team came to look for “sustainable sexy”—not from lust but from refinement and intention in what the object is and what it does, and how it does it—no compromises, just new solutions to a new set of project parameters.

I used to work for a furniture company, and when addressing sustainability, it occurred to me that the most sustainable desk, is one made from a tree that was cut down, on your property for instance, built well, built to last realistically 70+ years, at which point it can be discarded, and the tree that grew in its place can be cut down to make another desk—the cycle continues.   This is a little naïve, especially in the context of needing to provide work space of 14,000 people on an IBM campus in North Carolina, and not likely appropriate considering the storage requirements, efficiencies in shared components etc. that systems furniture can offer, but it is an interesting lens to look through.

Sustainability is not always about using the right materials.  It is about the right mindset regarding such things as shared uses and recyclability—for example, materials engineers seeking ways to better use recycled material so not so much virgin material is used.  Recycled plastic for instance cannot be used in any food grade products.  Surely this is not a limitation of the material, simply a limitation in the motivation to find a way to do it.  Aluminum is great example because it is cheaper to use recycled material than to process new from the raw bauxite.

Another way to think about products is to consider product to service models.  This is conceptually a great way to achieve a number of goals.  Consider cars—some need to own them, but others reluctantly buy them because they need to use them for mobility.  They would gladly use another option should one be available.  It is really the service of transportation that’s needed, not a car.  Car companies may not see things this way, but many people do.  Organizations like AutoShare and ZipCar (both operating in Toronto), have responded to this, providing a transportation alternative—car rental by the hour, in locations throughout the city—that many are finding works very well for them.  This is also turning the manufacture-to-sell-an-object model on its head.  If products were developed to sell as services, they would be far more robust, reliable, and serviceable, as those elements that contribute to the sustainability of the object coincide with all the economic drivers.

So in closing, we should try to gain an understanding of the things with which we surround ourselves, to value things more and try to make more responsible decisions in what we buy.  Remember the three categories of objects: consumables, durables, and un-marketables; and the sustainability of execution and of conception.

I had the opportunity to view an installation by the artist James Turrell.  The piece was essentially an illuminated space in a totally dark room.  The light was very dim, almost a black light, and at first impossible to see.  Over the course of about 10 minutes, my eyes adjusted to the light.  I could see its colour and shape and depth, it was a space of almost no definable dimensions.  The strange thing was leaving, only to return later—my eyes perceived the light almost immediately with no adjustment.  They had already adjusted.  My brain had been trained to see the image. So it is with objects when you see it, when you are listening—once you see it, you will always see it

Reading List

  • The Uncommon Life of Common Objects by Akiko Busch
  • Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek
  • Industrial Design by John Heskett
  • The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski
  • LifeStyle by Bruce Mau
  • The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design by Donald Norman
  • Icons, Magnets of Meaning by Aaron Betzky
  • Spoon published by Phaidon


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