Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Sustainability killed the styling star

Let the polemic continue...

This is my third attempt to start this paragraph... One of my previous posts created some stir, you know, the one about useless junk products. First, let's not confuse that with honest innovation, or experimentation. Jonathan Cagan and Craig Vogel described that difference very well (more on that later), but it's not the only taxonomy of design. I mean, we can't pretend that there's only one category of design. In my view, (correct me if I'm wrong) It's like I said about musicians: there are 100,000 crappy ones for each 10,000 mediocre, 1,000 average, 100 acceptable, 10 good ones and 1 extraordinary. And again, like I said, the problem are not the 11,111 on top, the problem is what to do with those 100,000!

According to Cagan/Vogel (or my free interpretation) we can graph products into a table using 2 sets of variables. On the x axis we have technology and the y axis is styling:
  • So, if you have a product with low style and low technology, you have a cost driven, generic product like those sold at walmarts and targets.

  • Then we have low use of style but high use of technology. Let's call this category "infomercial products" this is where many "innovations" fall into. They are so desperate to be the first to put their products in the market, that they set aside ergonomics, style and lifestyle impact. Here you find products from brands such as HP, Microsoft, etc.

  • Then we have the style divas: Stark, Graves, Rashid and others. I quote "Some companies that live in this quadrant explore the boundary of aesthetic experimentation and usually fail in the application of human factors, and core technology. Profit in this quadrant is the result of either a market seeking out image and art, or by tricking consumers into believing that the highly styled look of these products is backed by competent ergonomic and technology design" (abridged)

  • And finally, what they call "the upper right quadrant" i.e. products with high aesthetic refinement, use of high technology resulting in a high value product. A good example could be this TENTE casters for hospital beds.
My point on that previous post was that I don't believe that styling is a good reason for new products development (note that I didn't say innovation, which is something else). I think that a sponge bob key-chain hardly qualifies as innovation, or a boob shaped mug, or many other kitschig products that are over flowing this world. The same dilemma applies to many of those Paris Hilton's of design. In most of my conferences, I always ask the public if someone has at home a "juicy salif". Then I ask them if they really use it to make orange juice for breakfast everyday... the answer is always: No. It's used only as a piece of decoration for their kitchen.

Starting at the 20's in the 40's, 50's and 60's it was OK to do such things. I mean, just look at the name "De Stijl". I just love the Rietveld chair... and I admire the freedom they had to do such things. But nowadays it would be irresponsible to do a chair that you can't sit on it. And I don't mean it's not OK in terms of experimentation, I mean in terms of sustainability, like building a concept car is totally OK. We can't afford to waste materials and resources on useless junk anymore. Allow me to elaborate on that.

First, when I say that it was OK at that time to stylize products... well, it's part of history. We can't just start building baroque buildings just because we can or "feel like doing it", or burn (or hang) people just because we reckon they may be witches or terrorists. Just because Moon-watcher beated to death one of the guys from the other tribe with a bone, doesn't mean that I have to beat the guy at the buffet that takes the last piece of bread! It was OK to manufacture big V8 cars texan style, but no one denies that it's not responsible anymore. Innovation is about renewing, that is starting something new. We can't behave or do things that others (or we) did, forever.

My friend Hooper told me once: Freedom is not about doing as you like, is about choosing to do what is right. I am not a hardcore treehugger environmentalist, nor in favour of censorship of any kind. But I do believe that we can't go on manufacturing junk forever. It's like the automotive emissions debate, if we don't start making changes and compromises today, there won't be a future to contaminate!!! If we designers, and manufacturers, and retailers, etc. don't start to make compromises about the sustainability of the products we put on this earth, soon there won't be any earth to put anything.

Imagine this scenario:
Year 2057, the oil reserves of the world are almost empty. The damage caused to the arctic to dig out the last few barrels of rock petrol is overwhelming. Petrol cars have been completely banned since 2027 to allow petrol to be used in the plastics industries only, but the demand cannot be fulfilled. The USA didn't cut consumption, and other developed and developing countries are demanding to have a similar supply quota per capita. But it's just not enough for everyone...
Under those circumstances, this wouldn't be so crazy after all:
To deal with the problem, a design police is implemented. All products have to undergo a strict control by the authorities to prove that they are worthy of being manufactured.
Or we can deal with that problem right now, and choose to do what is right, before we have to sacrifice our liberty in order to preserve some basic raw materials. Benjamin Franklin said: They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security. In a similar way, if we wait for a design police to come and tell us what to do, then we don't deserve to be designers, or developers, or innovators.

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