Read an Excerpt
The Product Sea
WE SWIM DAILY IN A SEA of mass-produced products that flood our awareness and shape our minds more profoundly than all the newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and movies we also experience. On the way to a movie you ride in a car that entertains you as surely as the movie will, by reinforcing your values, beliefs, and aspirations-thanks to the expertise of industrial designers, those people who are part engineer but mostly artist, who chiefly determine the way products look. You check your watch, also shaped by an industrial designer, to be sure that you won't miss the beginning of the movie.
Your companion admires its beauty, and you feel the warm satisfaction of affirmation.
The woman in the ticket booth, adorned with jewelry and eyeglasses designed by other industrial designers, dispenses tickets from a machine shaped by yet other industrial designers. The kid behind the refreshment counter dispenses a Coke from a machine shaped by an industrial designer into a cup shaped by another. Finally, you sit in a seat shaped by an industrial designer and watch a movie filled with images of other products- all shaped by industrial designers. I've only skimmed the surface of this visual sea, of course. I didn't mention the Palm Pilot that might nestle in your pocket or purse. Nor the cell phone you carry with you or in your car. An exhaustive inventory of the artifacts shaped by industrial designers that you witness every day-from the moment your clock radio turns on in the morning until you set it at bedtime-would fill this book and then some.
We don't just passively view the sea of products. We actively seek information from the watches on our wrists, the personal digital assistants (PDAs) in our pockets, and the computers on our desks. In fact, all products talk to us, and not just those we think of as information or communication devices- telephones, fax machines, TVs, radios, and watches-but all products. They always have. And they always will. Some speak out literally, like those infamous talking cars of a few years ago that announced "Fuel level is low!" and, when you forgot to turn them off, "The lights are on!" High-tech clocks announce the time every hour (or more discreetly, only when asked with the press of a button). Modern high-tech clocks with digital voices represent only the most recent of a long line of vocal timepieces. Grandfather's clocks and ship's clocks have chimed the time for centuries. Few products can match the attention-grabbing ability of an old-fashioned alarm clock's wake-up call.
Although increasing numbers of products come with audible chimes, bells, buzzers, and quasi-human voices, verbal products nevertheless remain relatively rare. Those which do communicate audibly invariably communicate visually as well, and this is what we mean when we say they "talk." In addition to the sound that comes from a radio, labels on its dial and controls also send visual messages. An ordinary watch doesn't tell us the time so much as it shows it, with what amounts to "body language," by silently pointing its "hands" at numbers on its "face." Likewise, the thermometer outside my kitchen window unobtrusively points out temperatures on its clocklike face.
The linear thermometer in my medicine cabinet indicates temperature with a slender finger of mercury. Other products communicate in a totally passive and silent manner. A ruler can convey enormous amounts of information. So can a book, which after all, is also a manufactured product.
WATCHES TELL MORE THAN TIME
Your watch always tells you-and anyone else who sees it-considerably more than the time. It is impossible, in fact, to design a watch that tells only time. Even the most ordinary watch speaks volumes not only through the customary numbers, hands, and graphic symbols on its face but also by means of every visual aspect of its form-including its shape, color, and texture. In the same way that people embellish their words with a universally understood "body language" of gestures and postures, products also say much more than the words and numbers of their labels suggest.
The appearance of each watch says different things-about itself, its designer, its manufacturer, its era, and the person who wears it. Knowing nothing more, the design of a watch alone-or of any other product-can suggest assumptions about the age, gender, and outlook of the person who wears it. It also conveys implications about its quality, performance, and worth. It suggests as well what the manufacturer deems important.
You could classify a watch according to any other attributes you choose, regardless of how irrelevant some might seem in light of a watch's essential time-telling purpose. The truly remarkable thing about a product's body language (like a person's) is that it answers any question implicitly put to it by the viewer. Ask the watches in the figure, "Which of you is heaviest?" or "hottest?" or "coolest?" One will step forward each time to say, "I am." Then ask them whose owner is the oldest, or youngest, or most athletic. Again, one will volunteer each time, "Mine is."
The questions a person implicitly asks of a product always pertain to personally relevant concerns and the preoccupations that tend to dominate her thoughts and feelings. (I will use "his" and "her" interchangeably and equally throughout this book.) And every product is a blabbermouth; it has a tendency to answer every question-and then some. The sea of products consequently issues a cacophony, like the sound of an orchestra warming up prior to a concert. However, just as we can detect strains of the first piece on the program, we can discern harmonious strains beneath the visual din of products -expressions of the same values, beliefs, concerns, and preoccupations we all resonate with called culture. The form of each human artifact, including that of each product, has moral and cultural significance that reflects not only its creators but also its audience. More important, it reinforces or reshapes the values, beliefs, concerns, and preoccupations of its audience. A time-based culture was impossible before the invention of the clock. We could not have an 8-hour workday without clocks. We could not be late for meetings until watches became commonplace.
Product design is a social enterprise involving product designers and everyone else involved in a manufacturer's product planning and development process. In turn, a product's design reflects and affects its surrounding culture.
One icon of our present era, the Braun Aromaster coffeemaker, introduced a seminal design that not only changed the way coffeemakers look but also changed the way people make coffee. Increasingly, office chairs resemble Herman Miller's Aeron chair. Chrysler's minivan changed the definition of the family car in America. The Palm Pilot hasn't merely replaced notebooks and printed calendars; it has changed the ways people plan their time and conduct their lives. Apple's iMac has become such a compelling icon that computers in movies, sitcoms, and comic strips usually are iMacs.
The most popular products, especially those we regard as beautiful, just happen to have the right answers to questions asked by most viewers. As times change and our preoccupations change, we pose different questions. Or having asked the same questions, we selectively perceive different answers. Regardless of what varies-color, shape, size, etc.-the appeal of a product's appearance always depends on the appropriateness of the answers it gives under the circumstances. Thus anthropologists and archaeologists can learn much about what mattered to the people of any culture or era by interpreting their most popular artifacts, the mass-produced products they chose to own.
During the 1950s and 1960s, when gas was cheap, a car shopper would have posed such questions as, "Are you powerful?" Automobiles like the 1960 Chrysler Imperial that symbolically expressed great power-those which were the longest, widest, most massive, and had the biggest fins-appealed most.
Shortly after the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, when gasoline prices shot to unprecedented levels, a consumer was more likely to ask, "Are you fuel efficient?" She would have found that smaller, lighter-looking cars from Japan and Europe also looked better than the behemoths from Detroit. Today, concerns about gas prices and thirsty minivans and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) apparently pale in comparison with concerns about safety and security-and thus the symbolic advantages of large, rugged-looking vehicles that visually promise protection from highway crashes and carjackers.
Being products of the Information Age, designers of high-tech watches and SUVs are under some pressure to make them resemble information devices.
Some watches and instrument panels now combine traditional functions with those of phones, computers, and satellite-guided navigation devices, as well as sophisticated audio entertainment; some require as much attention and intellect to use as a computer or PDA. Today's products are also expected to present active, robust, athletic personas at a time when we are preoccupied with performance, physical fitness, and security. An SUV also must seem safe as a vault in case of accident and as intimidating to would-be villains as an armored tank.
Archaeologists and historians understand people of other cultures and previous eras by interpreting their artifacts. Cultural elites denigrate the everyday products of pop culture because they speak to large, "unsophisticated" audiences.
The rarity of preindustrial, handcrafted artifacts automatically made them more precious and valuable than today's plentiful mass-produced products.
However, this is chiefly a matter of market value due to scarcity. Fundamentally, a one-of-a-kind, Bronze Age hair clip is intrinsically no more artistically valuable than a bobby pin just because the machines for spewing millions of them at a time were not yet available and someone had to tediously fashion it by hand. Some day, when only a handful of Apple iMac computers remains, they, too, will become priceless objects of art.
Even before that day arrives, future archaeologists will learn more about us from the iMacs, Timexes, and Buicks they unearth than from what hangs on the walls of art museums. As Philip Nobel so aptly puts it, "Design is the art that is hidden in plain sight." He includes architecture, fashion, and graphic design, which we long ago acknowledged as art forms. The issue here is not so much the value a culture places on its artifacts but rather how valuable they ultimately become as indicators of that culture-and the sheer force of their effects on the culture in return. Just as handcrafted tools, weapons, and other useful objects were the most important artifacts of preindustrial eras whose inhabitants depended on them as much as they admired them, people of future eons who wonder about us will appreciate mass-produced products as the most significant artifacts of the Industrial Age. They will acknowledge industrial design as the most significant and influential art form of the industrial twentieth century-and beyond. Already, museums all over the world mount comprehensive exhibitions of industrial design with increasing frequency.
New York's Museum of Modern Art has done so for decades, and its permanent collection of the work of industrial designers grows almost daily. London and other cities have museums devoted only to industrial design. By sheer numbers and pervasive dissemination, the artifacts of the industrial age-replicated by the thousands, millions, and hundreds of millions-are bound to influence contemporary cultures more profoundly than the scarce artifacts of previous ages could affect their populations. The meaningful decorations on a Greek urn that communicated and reinforced cultural values could affect only a small group. In contrast, an iMac's equally significant transparent colors span the globe and reach into every region supplied with magazines, newspapers, or billboards carrying Apple's ads. You don't have to own one to be affected by it.
PRODUCTS AS MASS MEDIA
Mass-produced products do not merely overwhelm the fine arts and other less prolific sources of meaningful artifacts. Collectively, they constitute nothing less than a mass medium of such enormous scope and influence that it rivals TV and the movies in its ability to influence mindsets and behavior.
The 1998 rollout of Apple Computer's friendly, translucent iMac had all the hoopla of a Hollywood-produced mass-media event. The iMac stepped onto a stage where a typically American plot played itself out: Steve Jobs, brash kid, cofounds company that creates an industry. Humbled and outfoxed by the big kids, kid loses company. Older and wiser a decade later, comeback kid gets ailing company back and vindicates himself by creating a dramatic turnaround product that heroically pulls the company back from the brink of disaster. He does it largely with superior design.
As evidence of what a product with an innovative, well-crafted look can do, leadership-in spirit, if not in total sales-returned to the iconoclastic company with the unsanctimonious rainbow-colored apple logo that once owned the personal computer business. Amid a "Think Different" ad campaign that berated the greige-box format that had dragged Apple's market share downward during Jobs' hiatus, the cute, plucky little iMac said it all. It was the little computer that could: "I think I can, I think I can-I can!" The Apple faithful (dubbed "Macolytes" by San Jose Mercury News columnist David Plotnikoff), who had stuck with Apple through the grim years, at last had something to cheer about. And they had renewed reason to jeer Bill Gates and his northern juggernaut. The buoyant mood recalled the now-classic 1984 anti-big brother Super Bowl TV commercial that launched the original Macintosh by thumbing its nose at the juggernaut of that day, IBM: "Hi!," the cute, friendly little computer said, "I'm the computer for the rest of us."
To the uninitiated masses still bothered by computer phobia, iMac's friendly demeanor beckoned gently, "Give me a try. I won't hurt you!" It went the ultimate measure to allay their fears of guile even further by baring the warm, incandescent glow of its soul through a transparent skin: "See. I have nothing to hide." The iMac quickly racked up 800,000 sales within just 4 months of its launch and rose to become the top-selling personal computer-and arrested Apple's slide toward oblivion. This despite the fact that, like all previous Macs, the iMac cost more than comparable "Wintel" computers (those running Microsoft's Windows operating system on Intel microprocessors). Some 32 percent of iMacs were bought by first-time computer buyers, which history shows are unlikely to switch to other platforms in the future. More important yet, 13 percent were "conquest" sales to people who switched to Apple from "Wintels." Such results provide evidence that design contributes to a product's value as surely as performance, quality, or reliability. In fact, superior design is an especially cost-effective means for increasing value and, consequently, profit.
Whereas performance, quality, and reliability improvements usually increase costs, superior design needn't cost more than inferior design. Indeed, bad design compounds costs by mitigating potential consumer appeal. Bad design, or even mediocre design, is among the worst and most needless investments.
THE MALL AS THEATER
Michael Wolf says, in The Entertainment Economy, "If the '80s and '90s were about 'I want my stuff,' the first decades of the 21st century will be about 'I want to feel better, sexier, more informed, better fed, and less stressed.' " He observes that in the United States, entertainment is already a $480 billion industry (not including TV sets and VCRs) and is growing fast. He notes that Las Vegas, whose only industry is entertainment, enjoyed employment growth of 8.5 percent that "beat out China, Brazil, France, and the rest of the United States." The "fun" or "frivolity" factor in the design of many recent products, such as DaimlerChrysler's PT Cruiser, lend credence to Wolf's contention that we have become "fun-focused" consumers. We seek entertainment in our products, just as we do from TV programming, movies, Disneyland, and even the news.
Even without the theatrics that accompanied the iMac's introduction, the product sea is a major component of this entertainment economy. Products provide visual entertainment to the extent that-like all forms of entertainment -they stir emotions and perpetuate existing values and beliefs by reinforcing them. Every venue in which products are visible-whether on the streets, in our living rooms, or at our places of work and recreation-serves as a stage.
As both a temple of capitalism and theater, a shopping mall has no peer. It serves simultaneously as a source for material goods, entertainment-and acculturation. I purposely say temple because I don't believe that the cruciform plan that so many malls exhibit is entirely coincidental. The plazalike intersection of the axes serves as communal meeting place, just as urban plazas and town squares once did. These spaces often embrace stages that feature entertainment throughout the year, from musical groups to jazzercise competitions. Santa Claus holds court there at Christmas time, as does another quasi-religious figure, the Easter Bunny, during his season.
The mall has become the social gathering place that Main Street used to be, especially for kids too young to drive. It provides almost everything towns used to provide. The latest mall designs promote this impression by trading any sense of unity for the chaos of unplanned village streets. Unlike the city or suburb outside, its tightly knitted, enclosed environment makes it easy to get from one shop or theater to another on foot. In an age of street anxiety, it is a safe haven where violent crime is virtually unheard of. Only when shoppers leave its sanctity for the expansive wastelands of the parking lot do they risk muggers, carjackers, and rapists. About the worst calamity that can befall a mall is news that someone has been attacked in the parking lot.
The pervasive presence of mass-produced products in our public and private lives-abetted by images of them broadcast in advertisements in magazines, newspapers, TV programs, and movies-means that products as mass media have a far larger audience than any other medium of information or entertainment.
While we can choose whether to read a magazine or book, enter a museum or movie theater, or watch TV, we cannot entirely avoid exposure to mass-produced products. Even as we watch TV, we watch a TV set. You might flee to the proverbial desert isle, but you'd better not scan the horizon or the sky if you want to prolong the escape from this exposure, lest you glimpse a cruise ship or a 747.
Designers of furniture and relatively simple products, working alone, sometimes enjoy the same exclusivity and personal control over outcomes as sole fine artists do. However, most industrial designers collaborate with ensembles of other designers and people from a range of other disciplines and walks of life, including managers from several levels who exercise control over the design and development process. Like movies, TV programs, and architecture, the design of the typical mass-produced product reflects not just the mindset of an individual designer but that of a microcosm of the broader culture.
From the outset, then, a mass-produced product likely reflects the culture it springs from better than any work of fine art created by an individual.
The ultimate look of a product might begin with an industrial designer's sketches, but it usually reflects the give and take of several-often many-de facto designers from disparate backgrounds and with different concerns, agendas, and talents. Every individual involved in the product planning and development process, in fact, affects the product's final form-and what it communicates.
This de facto designer is part engineer, market researcher, ergonomist, and increasingly, assembly-line worker and agent who provides sales and service.
Consumers and users get involved, too, through focus groups and other means for capturing opinions and suggestions from the marketplace and potential users. The outcome cannot help but be a more inclusive expression of cultural values. While this "design by committee" process distresses industrial designers-the only experts officially mandated to ensure a product's visual appeal-it should delight anthropologists. They are interested not so much in the tastes of individuals as in the norms of popular tastes.
The collaborative design process is never democratic. The highest rungs on the corporate ladder come with the most license and clout. And no one takes greater interest in outcomes or has more clout than a company's founder, chief executive officer (CEO), or board chairman. A product development team would ignore inputs from this individual only at its peril. Regardless of how much well-founded effort a team might have invested in a project, a whim of the CEO can change a product's ultimate design decisively. Both Fords, Henrys I and II, were famous-infamous among industrial designers- for exercising their aesthetic prerogatives. For better or worse, nothing came out of the Ford Motor Company for as long as either lived without enduring their scrutiny and applications of their personal tastes. An increasing number of corporate captains, such as Apple Computer's cofounder and CEO, Steve Jobs, have become vocal champions of good design and get actively involved in every stage of the design process.
Good design or just design-often with that capital D-has become a hotbutton topic in boardrooms and the popular press. Two organizations, the Design Management Institute and the Corporate Design Foundation, now promote the importance of good design and guide manufacturers who seek it.
Strategic design and design strategy are right up there with branding among the "buzziest" of corporate buzzwords and are considered crucial to a company's future prosperity. At the same time, consumers now expect and demand good design more than at any time since industrial design's golden age of the 1930s. Articles about industrial designers and their works appear almost weekly in magazines and newspapers. ID Magazine, once read only by industrial designers, now appears on newsstands and is bought by consumers as well as design professionals. Business Week and The Wall Street Journal now cover industrial design regularly. Business Week assumed sponsorship of the annual Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEAs) given by the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) and devotes an extensive spread to them each summer.
Yet few books about management or marketing mention the word design, let alone aesthetics. In The Guru Guide, by Joseph and Jimmie Boyett, which summarizes the ideas of more than 75 of the most highly regarded management authorities-from Karl Albrecht to Patricia Zingheim, with Warren Bennis, Henry Mintzberg, and Peter Drucker in between-neither design nor aesthetics appears in the index. Even Max DePree's Attributes of Leadership contains no mention of design, even though he was once CEO of Herman Miller, the American furniture manufacturer that has championed good design as the guiding principle of its corporate strategy for over 60 years.
Tom Peters stands out as the exception. He has stressed the necessity of good product design in several of his books and newspaper columns over more than a decade. "Design is it!" he enthuses in The Circle of Innovation, in which he devotes at least 22 pages to extolling good design's virtues and stressing its necessity. He begins with this telling prediction from Harvard Business School professor, Robert Hayes: "Fifteen years ago, companies competed on price. Today it's quality. Tomorrow it's design."
THE MEANINGS OF DESIGN
Hayes' assertion implies that, until recently, design has had little importance as a competitive edge. In fact, design always has been "it," regardless of whether performance, price, quality, or some other competitive factor is what consumers are preoccupied with at the moment. And it always will. Design subsumes all the other factors by determining the character and worth of each and every one of a product's attributes. Design is not just about looks. If a product outperforms the competition by fulfilling its purposes best or demonstrates better quality, it does so by virtue of superior design. If it delivers more value than the rest by costing less in the bargain, this also follows from superior design.
Design is ambiguous, what Uwe Poerksen calls a "plastic word." Like many old and familiar words that we take for granted, it has attached itself to different concepts, found different uses, and come to mean different things to different people over the centuries. It means one thing to an artist composing the elements of a painting. It means something else to an engineer weighing tradeoffs of function and economy in deciding how many screws to specify for connecting two components. It means quite different things to an architect with designs for a house and a politician with designs on the White House. To the consumer who happens to have none of these vocations or avocations, design most likely refers simply to "good looks." This usually is what business leaders mean when they enthuse about design as the newest next thing in competitive edges. Good design and just design-especially when spelled with a big D-are simply codes for "good looking" or, more technically, "superior aesthetics."
DESIGNING AS PLANNING
The French have made the various notions of design easier to put into perspective by retaining two slightly different words, dessein and dessin, for two quite different concepts, for which English-speakers have only the one. In the broadest sense, the French distinguish between a private side of the design process, visible only to the mind's eye of the designer, and public expressions of it, visible to anyone.
Dessein pertains to the covert aspect of design. Its synonyms include aim, contemplate, aspire, envision, plan, project, propose, resolve, scheme, and speculate. It is strictly imaginary and intangible. More important, this aspect of design involves a future-oriented frame of mind, often laced with hope and idealism. We are all born designers in this sense, without need of formal schooling. You exercise your intuitive design skills in everything you do, from contemplating what better color to paint the living room to choosing the best thing to wear. You design next summer's vacation, too, as you consider options of where to go, when to go, and how much to spend-and select from among them. You might have begun a long-range design project by planning your retirement, even if all you have done so far is open a savings account.
Our very survival depends on our design skills. It depends on the ability to continually visualize the future, accurately predict how it will most likely unfold, and act accordingly. Even as you prepare to cross the street, you contemplate possibilities and probabilities and weigh costs and benefits: Do you save time by jaywalking or opt for less risk by walking an extra half block to use the crosswalk protected by a signal? If you opt for jaywalking, you must predict the paths of each vehicle in traffic and plan your crossing to coincide with a suitable opening. Having embarked, you automatically and unconsciously design each step in order to move along the intended path, maintain your balance, and avoid stumbling on the curb.
Expectations about the future arise from a complex mental model of the world, which Kenneth Boulding simply calls the "Image." Built up, elaborated, and refined by all of life's experiences so far, the Image represents all that you know about the world "as it is" and, by extrapolation, "as it will be"-at least for the near term. You predict when traffic will be clear enough to cross the street, based on similar past experiences and the intuitive knowledge of physics you have developed along the way. Except for an occasional surprise, assumptions based on the Image enable you to cope quite well as you interact with the real world from one moment to the next, step by step, day by day, and year to year.
Design, however, is about more than coping; it is also about changing things for the better. Herbert Simon observes in Sciences of the Artificial that design involves acts that transform an imperfect world "as it is" into a more ideal world "as it should be." In Simon's view, all of a university's "professional" schools-including medicine, law, engineering, and business, as well as architecture and design-constitute design schools. The faculties and students of these schools should properly study and devise ways to improve the world by applying knowledge mined and crafted by sister schools of science and humanities. More often than not, we imagine that some new or improved product would be the best way to close the gap between real and ideal worlds: a more accurate watch; a safer, more efficient car; a less intrusive surgical tool for repairing knees.
Humans are not alone in their propensity for design. Survival for any organism depends on anticipating the future and reacting appropriately to it. My cat Rex designs when he asks to go out or climbs onto my shoulder for his affection fix and to groom my beard. In both cases, he is striving to improve his world as he sees it. Humans take more factors into account and contemplate more distant futures-the hallmarks of superior intelligence. Design is so characteristically human, in fact, that we might justifiably call ourselves the "design animal." Our superior design ability sets us apart from other species as surely as our superior language and tool-making abilities. Indeed, the most important thing about those other talents, especially tool making, is the extent to which they serve the objectives of our design behavior.
The design instinct entails certain psychological costs. A designer is always disgruntled to some extent because things never seem good enough or as good as they could be. Rex would rather be out when he's in, for example, and in when he's out. And my beard is never clean enough to suit him. Regardless of how good a product is, most users can find shortcomings and imagine how it could be better. And the designers who created it were never quite satisfied with it and wish they could have another crack at "getting it right." When I assign my students an open project, in which they have the opportunity to invent any product they wish, I suggest that they begin by developing "bug lists." True designers have no trouble coming up with endless lists of things from everyday life that "bug" them-each representing a potential new product.
Many of our designs are no more than idle musings that never see the light of day: a dream vacation never taken, a dream house never built. Some, like a politician's designs on a particular office, never become tangible even when realized. A product designer's fantasies and plans, however, are meant to be transformed into very real and tangible objects. This transformation-from ideal to real-defines the design process better than any other characterization.
DESIGN AS VISUALIZATION
The other general notion of design, dessin, corresponds to the conspicuous side of the design process. Its synonyms include sketch, drawing, and delineation.
These visible manifestations of the otherwise secret design process enable the designer to communicate to others what is going on inside her head.
They also play a crucial role in the ideal-real transformation. They enable what Rudolph Arnheim calls "visual thinking," the chief means by which the designer's mental processes move forward. A sketch of a product concept issues from the designer's imagination. The sketch, in turn, informs-or rather, re-forms and redirects-the designer's imagination. This results in a revised sketch, which, in turn, revises the imagination yet again. This feedback loop, of private and public visualizations, continues throughout the design process.
The conspicuous sketch is as important as the covert concept in determining the outcome of the design process. Visualization is so endemic to the design process that schools of design prior to the twentieth century were little more than schools of drawing.
Each visualization, from the first conceptual sketch to the final working prototype, amounts to a snapshot of a design caught at some stage of its metamorphosis from imaginary concept to a tangible product. The depictions shown here of the Audi TT Roadster illustrate just two of the broad range of visualization modes used by industrial designers. Neither the empathic sketch nor the technical illustration below it depicts the actual car as fully as a photograph. Neither includes information about color or gloss, for instance.
Each one focuses the viewer's attention, instead, on a particular aspect of what the designer has in mind and needs to communicate to others at some point in the process. A designer normally uses empathic sketches at the outset of the design process to explore and express the aesthetic essence of a design, not its objective reality. The wheels in the empathic sketch are not round, for example, nor even of the same size. And the profile only suggests the actual car's profile.
Suitable empathic sketches evoke feelings, emotions, and moods that are appropriate for the product being designed. This particular sketch seems "active," for example, not "passive"-one of the impressions a consumer would expect a sports car to make. Empathic sketching requires unconstrained, intuitive strokes, not thoughtful ones-preferably with a broad felt-tip pen rather than a sharp pencil. A designer might feel emotionally intoxicated in the midst of a fruitful empathic sketching session. Feelings might seem to flow smoothly up from the viscera, down through the arm, and out onto the paper. Thoughts would only get in the way.
Technical illustrations come later in the design process, usually after the concept has been pretty much fleshed out. Whereas empathic sketches are expressive and emotional in nature (typical of an artist), technical illustrations are factual and rational (typical of an engineer). They require a precise drawing instrument and deliberate, careful attention to detail; objective accuracy is all-important. A technical illustration accurately forecasts the product's dimensions, proportions, and other geometric characteristics precisely enough that it could serve as a plan for making the real thing. At the same time, it should not sacrifice the equally crucial aesthetic essence of the empathic sketches that preceded it.
The industrial designer is the only member of the product design team expected to master both empathic and technical extremes. Successfully melding the two in the final product defines the industrial designer's most significant challenge. It is difficult because it requires two quite different frames of mind-emotional and rational-and the ability to switch back and forth between them at will and as necessary.
DESIGN AS EMBELLISHMENT
Dessin, however, implies more than visualization. Other synonyms include pattern, motif, decoration, and ornament. Before the Industrial Revolution reached its full stride, the closest thing to an industrial design course in one of those old-fashioned design schools mentioned earlier would have involved only superficial matters. Students would practice the design of decorative patterns or motifs for the embellishment of otherwise plain surfaces of fabrics, wallpaper, furniture, and architectural trim, as well as the largely handcrafted products of the period. Superficial decoration of product surfaces did not give way to concern for innovation and the underlying form of products until the advent of the Modern Design movement less than a century ago.
The notion of design as embellishment persists to this day, however, much to the chagrin of modern industrial designers. Art museums still assign furniture and manufactured products to categories with such names as "decorative arts" and "applied arts"-even though most of the items added to their collections since the 1920s have adhered to the norms of Modern Design and its disdain for embellishment. The outmoded view persists on bookshelves, too. If you open the latest book with design in its title, likely as not you will find it filled with decorative patterns and motifs for application to anything and everything.
THE URGE TO EMBELLISH
With the perspective of history Modernism's ascetic aesthetic might prove to be a momentary nadir of embellishment. Earlier eras, including those which immediately preceded Modernism (Art Nouveau and Art Deco), were characterized by more embellishment. So is Post-Modernism. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back toward a more normal median, and what follows next will be marked by even more embellishment. Modernism's lack of detail might seem unnatural to our nervous systems.
There has been speculation that the level of visual complexity we tend to prefer and feel most comfortable with was conditioned genetically by the complex arboreal environment from which our species emerged. If so, we should feel more at home when surrounded by something as visually complex as, say, Art Nouveau. A Modern Design environment might seem unnaturally austere, even when compared with the relatively plain, sparsely vegetated savannahs we later ventured on. After studying photographs of the interior spaces we typically choose to live in, no anthropologist would conclude that we are a culture of Modernists.
The urge of artists, writers, and musicians of any era to embellish their work seems irresistible. What would prose be without adjectives and adverbs to embellish it-to say nothing of poetry? What would music be without an occasional flourish? Even at Germany's Bauhaus School, Modern Design's citadel, designers sometimes spent extra effort to fake a look of effortless, no-nonsense functionalism-just to drive home the point of their Modernist manifesto.
Industrial designers have celebrated the Audi TT as a contemporary exemplar of Modern Design, a design that might have emerged from the Bauhaus if it still existed. Yet various expressions of the bolt-circle motif found throughout the car qualify as unabashed examples of embellishment. Where the bolts are real, there are more than needed to do the job required of them. Where they are imitations of real bolts or only symbolic dimples, they serve no practical purpose at all. They serve only the aesthetic purpose of suggesting that the car's "form follows function" in a strictly no-nonsense fashion-which, of course, the motif simultaneously belies. This tongue-in-cheek irony makes the car truly modern (i.e., up-to-date) with a delightful dose of Post-Modernism.
I hasten to say at this point, if it isn't clear already, that I am not criticizing the TT's design. Nor am I denying the legitimacy of embellishment. I happen to like the TT a lot. I probably would have left off the decorative touches had I designed it, but I am of a generation of designers whose values were thoroughly shaped by Modernism. The team of younger designers responsible for the TT would have been as compelled by Post-Modernism's values to include them.
Critics of embellishment were more convincing during the Modern Design era for practical reasons. Until recently, molding imitation bolts in a hub cap, or even dimples, would have required many more hours of a highly paid master toolmaker's time to machine the molds. This would have driven up the mold's cost and, consequently, the product's price. Today, however, when computers carve molds, they entail no more cost than specifying one color for the plastic instead of another. Thus there is less reason to take the Modernist's hard line against embellishment.
DESIGN AS COMMODITY?
You might assume that a hubcap with decorative bolts embodies more design than one without them. The historic association of design with embellishment reinforces the notion; more embellishment suggests more design. And if you compare the two, the embellished one certainly seems to have more of something.
What it has, however, is not more design but more information and, as a consequence, more of your attention. I will turn to the subject of information in due course. In the meantime, I want to dissuade you of any notion that design is a commodity that a manufacturer can add to a product to increase its appeal and value, in the way that more gold in a watch's case would increase the monetary worth of the watch.
We cannot adjust the amount of a product's inherent design in the same way we might increase other abstract properties such as performance and durability. In fact, each product comes with the fullest possible complement of design. The decision to leave the bolts off the TT would have entailed just as much design as the decision to include them. If design were a commodity that everyone wanted more of, removing all instances of the bolt-circle motif would diminish the car's design content, along with its appeal. Indeed, the plainer, "less designed" version might cool the passions of some who like it now as it is. At the same time, however, a good many Modernists in the audience -who subscribe to the maxim that "less is more"-would perk up and warm even more to the simpler, "more elegant" design.
It is the quality of design that counts. A product cannot have more or less design -only good, bad, or mediocre design. Quality of design depends, in turn, on the quality of the designer's intentions, contemplations, and choices among countervailing options. Thus we come full circle, back to the original notion of design as planning.
It boils down to a matter of attention to detail. As the legendary designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe noted: "God is in the details." But so is the Devil-in the unattended details. I often remind my students that, regardless of how good their instincts are, they will become better designers as they become better able to answer all my questions during project critiques: What did you intend to achieve by giving your product that particular shape? What were you contemplating when you put the handle over there instead of here? Why did you choose that particular color? I am often surprised at the inability of designers, even pros, to answer such obviously relevant questions. If they can't, they haven't paid enough attention to the details in question and haven't made choices. If the designer does not choose a color, for instance, the product nevertheless will have some color. If the designer of record does not take care to chose it, some de facto designer will: perhaps God, with luck; if not, probably the Devil.
The new emphasis on design actually corresponds to a shift in emphasis from practicality to aesthetics. The shift has made the industrial designer-the only member of the product design and development team officially responsible for aesthetics-a first-string player.
As originally coined by the ancient Greeks, aesthetic simply refers to sensations and feelings-good or bad, beautiful or ugly. This original meaning persists in medical and technical terms such as kinesthetic (awareness of the body's posture and movement, which arises from nerves buried in joints, tendons, and muscles) and synesthesia (the curious phenomenon where perceptions seem to cross sensory boundaries, as when someone literally tastes a color).
Today, however, when someone calls a painting, a song, or a new car aesthetic -or, as the British spell it, esthetic-they usually mean that it is "beautiful" or "tasteful." This usage presents a problem, however, for it implies that ugliness-the presumed opposite of beauty-is anesthetic in nature, "devoid of feeling." However, we know that isn't true. The disturbing stir of feelings caused by ugliness often exceeds the exhilarating stir of feelings associated with beauty. Thus we mislead by glossing over aesthetic as simply a synonym for beautiful.
I will use the original meaning. The beauty of a flower's perfume is aesthetic, but so is the ugliness of a bee's sting. Beauty and ugliness are not opposites, as we normally assume, but almost identical twins. James LeDoux, a neuroscientist who studies fear, contends in The Emotional Brain that fear is the prototypical emotion that underlies all others and that all others have evolved from it.
Ironically, our ability to feel the pleasure of a beautiful object depends on our ability to be shocked by an ugly one and stunned by fear. Thus expressions such as "stunning beauty" and "drop-dead gorgeous" come close to literal truth. Every beautiful object also contains the seeds of fearsome ugliness.
I often associate perceptions of beauty with the vague sensations of what I can best describe as homesickness. I have always loved to travel and to experience the strangeness of new places and things. By the time I was 11 years old, I had lived on both coasts and five places in between. I experienced homesickness for the first time during that period, when I traveled alone to visit a friend who had moved some 200 miles away. The homing urge I felt after a couple of days approached melancholy, but it wasn't wholly unpleasant. I suppose that my being especially mindful of home reinforced a sense of family and place, as well as the promise that I would return to them soon. I have experienced similar feelings-radiating from my solar plexus-when confronted with stunning beauty. The gut feelings of returning home or when part of a design "finds home" by fitting perfectly into place seem to be of the same cloth. They seem essential to finding pleasure in extraordinary things or experiences.
Little wonder that such feelings should flow from the gut. In The Second Brain, Michael Gershon describes an enteric nervous system that innervates organs of the viscera-heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, etc. This visceral "brain" rivals the complexity and influence of the more familiar brain in the head. Several thousand nerves connect the "brain" below to the brain above.
Thus we are consciously aware of much that happens down there. However, most of the 100 million nerves of the gut's "brain" exist only for the purpose of communicating among visceral organs. They enable and coordinate such essential activities as breathing, circulating blood, and digesting food. They do so automatically and, for the most part, without bothering us with a need to think about what goes on in our gut.
When the gut's "brain" does make itself known, it tends to dominate the head's brain. A gut feeling can overcome the most reasoned thought. Unfortunately, for anyone trying to explain aesthetics, it speaks a foreign language the head's brain finds hard to translate. Although we have all experienced the melancholy of homesickness and the thrill of beauty-from below-they remain difficult to explain, if not inexplicable with the discursive language from above.
A product's originality-its novelty-has a great deal to do with its ability to grab our attention, hold it, and start the aesthetic juices flowing. Novelty alone, however, does not suffice to make us like the product. The unique and novel tilt of the Leaning Tower of Pisa accounts for its fascination but not for any inherent beauty. Despite the fact that people flock from all over the world to gawk at and enjoy its unique deformity, it is an aesthetic disaster as a tower.
It has a serious deficit of authenticity. It doesn't make sense.
We could increase the tower's architectural authenticity and aesthetic appeal -if not its tourist appeal-by straightening it. In fact, we could increase the sense of authenticity and appeal of just about anything by making it, or some part of it, precisely vertical. Even people become more appealing when they adopt upright attitudes, whether with respect to posture or character.
Elegance implies authenticity or fitness, too. In scientific, artistic, and social spheres, it connotes correctness, exactness, precision, neatness, harmony, and simplicity. It is associated with "tasteful opulence in form, decoration, or presentation," as well as with "restraint and grace of style." It is also used simply as a synonym for beauty.
The sensation of a watch's weight as you hold it is as authentic as it gets. The purely visual impression that it is heavy does not guarantee that it will prove to be heavy when picked up or weighed on a scale. By the same token, a watch that seems accurate, or durable, or expensive to the eye might be none of these things. In each case, the feelings only amount to intuitive hunches- based only on the preliminary visual evidence-short of weighing it, testing its accuracy and durability, and asking its price. As unreliable as feelings often are, they nevertheless enter into every decision, especially those which consumers make. While it might gall our sense of practicality, a semblance of authenticity is often enough. We often buy products on the basis of feelings alone, without ever testing their true weight, accuracy, durability, or any other attribute that might otherwise sway us.
Still we value a truly authentic product more than one that only pretends- when form really does follow function. If someone in the market for a watch expects and wants a watch that is massive, accurate, and durable, he will tend to be drawn to those which seem heavy, accurate, and durable-and what's equally important, he will be inclined to ignore those which don't.
However, he will especially like those which prove to be true to their promise and turn out to be actually heavy, accurate, and durable-especially where perceived value equals or exceeds actual price. An authentic product seems "worthy of trust, reliance, or belief," just as an authentic person does.
It is bona fide, the real thing. However, the concept implies more than "conformity to fact." Authenticity also implies originality. An authentic object is neither a copy nor a counterfeit.
Some products continue to pleasantly excite people long after the excitement of their newness has worn off. They continue to seem appropriate for their intended purposes. They continue to fit harmoniously into their surroundings, their circumstances, and their times, even though all these "environmental" factors might have changed in the meantime. Put simply, they make sense indefinitely.
We tend to call perennial favorites classics. But this word does not go deeply enough to explain the special appeal of beauty. We revere classics in large part because they are beautiful. Or perhaps their beauty lies beneath the skin, in which case they are beautiful because they are classics; ugly classic is an oxymoron. Some endearing objects, however, even enduring ones, remain humble and never achieve classic status in the fullest sense of that word. In addition, we have diluted classic through overuse, misuse, and laxity until it has lost the special air that once surrounded it. Too often, now, classic just means "old," "rare," and "expensive." A true classic is extraordinary, and not just because it has weathered time. It stands above the crowd even though, as time passes, it might come to resemble the crowd more and more-or rather, the crowd comes to resemble it through emulation. A classic's appeal flows largely from its originality. It is not derivative of something else.
In fact, we can attribute the very essence of the word classic to the strangeness of originality. When something departs from the norm enough to seem original, we have difficulty fitting it neatly into some preexisting mental category or class. That is, we have trouble making immediate sense of it. Since mental classification is crucial to understanding anything, we cannot long endure the mental unease that comes from something that does not "fit," something that we cannot name with finality. We finally overcome the cognitive dissonance by rejecting the misfit; we might call it "ugly" or, more kindly, "ahead of its time." Or we overcome the cognitive dissonance by creating a new mental class-just for it, alone. It thus defines a new class of things, as the Palm Pilot did, and becomes the truest example of a classic. Creation of a new class for the Pilot was easy because "handheld computer" was a natural extension of "laptop computer." The prototype of a watch designed by Nathan George Horwitt in 1947 stands as one of the most eminent icons of Modern Design. It might well be the most emulated watch of all time. It remains "one of a kind" and the most authentic of its kind by virtue of its originality. It is the standard by which all subsequent "numberless" watch designs have been, and will be, measured.
The single dot at the 12:00 o'clock position symbolizes the sun at noon.
Functionally, it reinforces the vertical orientation of the watch's face. The dot is not strictly necessary to the watch's ability to indicate time; our sense of vertical orientation (and where noon lies) is so innate that we could tell time with the hands alone. By separating the hours of the day into symmetrical halves, the dot expresses the very essence of our time-telling tradition.
Technically, you could still tell time with the Horwitt watch if its dot were not positioned straight up at noon, but it would seem "imperfect" or "out of kilter." Without a precise sense of vertical orientation and symmetry, this watch probably would seem less authentic, less elegant-and less beautiful-than the genuine Horwitt watch. Which one do you like best? The slightly askew arrangement would have adverse practical consequences, too. More time and mental effort would be required to tell the time using it and it would be more likely to provoke mistaken readings.
You can test the relationship between vertical orientation and authenticity quite easily next time you see a picture hanging askew; straightening it will immediately make it seem more natural, more proper, more authentic. If you happen to be involved with product design, the next time a design doesn't seem just right-but you can't quite put your finger on why-try making one or more visual elements seem vertical, especially any that are nearly vertical already but not quite. Chances are good that you will like the design more after the change.
None of the preceding characterizations-classic, fitting, original, elegant, authentic-is sufficient, alone, to explain beauty or what we call "good design." Others, equally wanting, have been proposed, including uniformity, order, redundancy, and coherence. I know of only one term general enough to account for any property that helps the viewer "make sense" of a design:
concinnity. Rarely used for centuries, it nevertheless appears in most dictionaries over 2 inches thick. They typically equate it with "symmetry," "harmony," "neatness," and "elegance." A few cut to the chase by saying it means "beauty" or, more specifically, "studied beauty." From the Latin word concinnitas, it originally meant "a skillful and harmonious adaptation or fitting together of parts." Think of an arch whose stones fit so neatly together that they need no mortar to hold their place and prevent collapse. Later, in rhetoric, concinnity was called a "a close harmony of tone as well as logic among the elements of a discourse." Don't let the double n trip your tongue; it's pronounced no differently than if it had only one n-kun-SIN-iti, with the accent on cin. To the extent that Latin was pronounced like its daughter, Italian, the double n might be savored for just a moment longer than a lonely n. Spoken naturally, it slides smoothly and effortlessly off the tongue-rather concinnously, as a matter of fact. Its adjectival form, concinnous ("kun-SIN-us"), is more sensuous yet; it doesn't merely slide, it slithers.
Technically, the inherent concinnity in the form of an object makes it easier to perceive, understand, and remember. A cube and a sphere, to use just two examples, have lots of concinnity. And you know precisely what I mean by cube and sphere. Their images come quickly and easily to mind. You probably could draw a pretty accurate picture of either from memory. Even though you are quite familiar with your car or your watch, you would have considerably more difficulty drawing an accurate picture of either. They might have a lot of concinnity for a car or a watch, but no car or watch will have as much as a sphere.
The sense of beauty requires that a thing "make sense." Concinnity ensures that it does make sense. Whenever you see something that is beautiful, you can be certain that it embodies concinnity. By the same token, when you see a product-or anything else-that is wanting aesthetically, its shortcoming always can be traced to a lack of concinnity. Concinnity is in the repetition of rhythmic and rhyming words of a poem that makes it easier to memorize.
Concinnity is in the repetitious theme threading its way through a song that makes it easier to sing. The Horwitt watch reveals its concinnity in several ways: The circle has the greatest possible symmetry of any figure; the repetition of circles lends it harmony; and its simplicity lends it elegance, as does the realization that it achieves so much-functionally and aesthetically- with so little. All these concinnous factors make it easy to describe or draw from memory.
I will explain more about the nature of concinnity and how a designer can use it to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse in Chapters 9 and 10.
WHY AESTHETICS MATTERS
Why should people care so much about a product's aesthetic qualities, which, after all, are ethereal and do not necessarily correspond with how well the product works? Why do an increasing number of art museums mount exhibitions of industrial design alongside the works of Michaelangelo, Van Gogh, and Picasso? What warrants all the attention in boardrooms?
The hair's breadth separating beauty and ugliness accounts for all the perplexities that vex marketers, CEOs, and designers who hope to appeal to consumers: the product loved by one but loathed by another, the product liked last year but disliked this year, the product shunned last year but embraced this year, and the holiest of all grails, the product with classic beauty that everyone admires forever.
In the final analysis, aesthetics is about pleasure-or displeasure. And the pleasure principle is the fundamental motivator of everything we do: We instinctively seek out things that promise pleasure and avoid those which threaten displeasure or pain. Even when nothing particularly important is at stake, such as hunger or sex, the search for pleasure and avoidance of displeasure are so ingrained that we take our pleasure wherever we find it. Thus a product's beauty often provides reward enough, just as the beauty of a revered sculpture does, or the sound of a brook, or the smell of a flower. The Yankee utility of a Porsche or Rolex watch is virtually secondary to their aesthetic pleasure; the utility of a Ferrari is secondary. And they're so much more accessible than works hanging in museums. Even if we can't afford to own any of these precious products, enough of them are out and about that we can at least see and enjoy them more often than the Mona Lisa-without the expense of owning them.
What seems a greater willingness to admit our hedonistic leanings lately- even to celebrate them-brings to mind psychologist Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs": Once basic and practical needs such as food, clothing, and shelter have been met, we can turn to more self-fulfilling intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic pursuits. We might imagine a corollary proposition: With assurance that competing products perform equally well enough, last equally long enough, and cost about the same, we can afford to purchase them on aesthetic grounds alone. Furthermore, we are often willing to pay a premium for product beauty. People pay thousands of dollars more for superior appearance in a car, or even a watch, above and beyond either product's practical value. Computers and other high-tech products also fall increasingly into the same category as the cost of their technology diminishes and they become more equal in utilitarian ways.
Eventually, we want to understand why so many products become important to us-especially why we like the looks of one and dislike those of another. We are after nothing less than an answer to the age-old question: "What is beauty?"-and all its perplexing ramifications. Why do you find a certain car (or person, for that matter) beautiful, whereas a friend doesn't? Why does it seem appropriate to wear one watch while jogging but essential to wear another one to the office or out to dinner? Why do tastes vacillate? Why does the new car you loved just last year now bore you? Why does the one you thought ugly last year now seem beautiful?
1983 Chrysler Minivan Braun Aromaster coffeemaker Herman Miller Aeron chair
Apple iMac computer Palm V handheld computer 1960 Chrysler Imperial
2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser
Empathic sketch (top) and technical illustration
Audi TT Coupe and Roadster
Prototype watch designed by Nathan George Horwitt (1947)