Category Archives: industrial design

Philippe Starck Awakens

Philippe StarckThe archetypal view of product design is that its practitioners are largely concerned with the creation of seemingly one-dimensional artefacts, for example, cheap disposable consumer products, while the bigger socio-political problems facing the world are best solved by scientists and engineers. This is a rather dogmatic view of the designer’s role in society.
In fact it’s easy to perpetuate the myth that most commercially successful Industrial Designers are flaky, temperamental, and generally self-centered artistic types who work in a vacuum toiling away on things of trivial significance. After all, does the world really need yet another stackable injection-molded chair or ergonomically designed cheese grater?

In the 80s and 90s the industrial designer undoubtedly most identified as “superstar” on the international stage was Philippe Starck, succeeded perhaps by the flamboyant Karim Rashid.
Looking back, many of Starck’s iconic products, particularly his houseware and furniture pieces, seem to resonate as highbrow artistic pieces driven by visual opulence over utility or sustainable use of materials. In this light many critics painted Starck as nothing more than a stylist whose job it was to make beautiful expensive-looking things —period.

Fast Forward 20 Years
In recent years it seems Starck’s focus has apparently shifted from catering to the material desires of the luxury goods market to more sustainable and ecologically-minded motivations. The world famous Starck is working on a revolutionary product with Apple yet, reflecting on the past, bemoans that his work was perhaps “largely unnecessary and devoid of any genuine meaning”.

This is a stunning admission coming from the designer who came to symbolize the luxury —some say elitist— design arrogance of the 80s and 90s.

In a 2008 interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, responding to the question
“Why did you become an Industrial Designer?” Starck said:

I haven’t found an answer to it for myself yet. Look, I have designed so many things without ever really being interested in them. Maybe all these years were necessary for me to ultimately recognize that we, after all, don’t need anything. We always have too much (stuff).

“Everything I have created is absolutely unnecessary. Design, structurally seen, is absolutely void of use. A useful profession would be to be an astronomer, a biologist or something of that kind. Design really is nothing. I have tried to install my designs with a sense of meaning and energy, and even when I tried to give my best it was still in vain.

These remarks are difficult to digest when you consider Starck has made millions and reportedly owns 19 homes around the globe and a private jet as a result of his lucrative design commissions over the past 30 years.

The Allure Of Glass Interfaces

Real Steel (2011) screen interfaces

Alan Kay once famously said, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

“Invent” also happens to be Hewlett-Packard’s long-standing tagline (exactly how long, I’m not sure). Did you happen to spot the HP logo on Hugh Jackman’s screen above? How about Hugh’s glass phone on the right prominently sporting the Nokia logo.

Glass interfaces seem to be showing up more and more in popular sci-fi lately. And why not? They’re really cool looking, but not quite practical from an ergonomics, manufacturing or design perspective —but perfect as movie props to convey a sense of technological advancement and sophistication several years off into the future.

Let’s assume for a moment HP and Nokia are working on glass interface screens and mobile devices right now, just like the ones depicted above in the film Real Steel. Incidentally, consider the rumour Apple is developing an all-glass version of the iPod and iPhone. Awesome! I want one. Oh but wait, exactly what are the benefits of a glass screen again? —sustainable use of materials? —reduced power consumption (over a standard LCD)? —or does glass merely fulfill some tactile aesthetic desire?

Perhaps our love affair with plastic products is finally coming to an end. Plastic is of course petroleum based and could one day become cost-prohibitive as global oil production slows and environmental concerns curb its use in consumer product offerings.
Karim Rashid made a good point in Objectified when he said high-tech objects, which generally have a shelf life of eleven months, should be 100% disposable. How about laptops and mobile phones made of cardboard, sugarcane or bioplastic instead of polycarbonate.

So maybe glass does make sense.

Even Google seems to be jumping on the glass device bandwagon. Unlike their April Fools spoof last month, Gmail Tap, the Project Glass initiative we’ve been hearing about lately is a very real invention, one that could be destined for our eyeballs very soon.
If you can get past the parody videos poking fun at the concept you might feel slightly titillated—perhaps even a little creeped out—by the thought of friends and family bumping into one another when wearing these accident inducing glasses out in public. While Apple’s Siri and other voice-op UIs suggest conventional screen based interfaces may someday be on the way out (perhaps first in the mobile space), the question worth asking is, would you really wear a pair these Web connected (eye) glass devices?

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a future concept from one of the tech giants touting shiny glass augmented reality displays and wearable computer devices. Back in October 2011 Microsoft produced a highly polished video entitled Productivity Future Vision that left some people wondering if the future of interaction should be relegated to a single finger sliding ‘pictures under glass’, as Bret Victor eloquently put it in his post on the the future of interaction design.

The Dark Ages Of UX: A Quick Anecdote

Detail from Pieter Bruegel's "The Triumph Of Death", oil on panel, c. 1562

Update Nov.25.2010: To my delight the comments now appear to be working on Smashing Magazine dot com. Perhaps the technical problems were caused by back-end gremlins  — remember, don’t feed them after midnight!

Last night I was reading through a rather lengthy post over at Smashing Magazine exploring the emerging field of User Experience Design. It’s a topic I am very much interested in as a marketing professional and, it goes without saying, UX is playing an increasingly significant role in the design and development of digital applications.

I say emerging field—and I say that without the slightest bit of hesitation—because after last night, and a frustrating experience trying to submit my comment and join the discussion over at Smashing Magazine dot com (one of the biggest, most visited digital design/development resources online), I feel like we’re still living somewhat in the dark ages of UX.

My lame experience on Smashing Magazine last night only illustrates an all-to-common scenario many people go through each and every day online. In my particular case all I wanted to do was leave a simple comment (below) on their site that I had thoughtfully taken the time to write.

Sounds simple right? Wrong.

The site apparently thought my comment contained questionable words and/or characters indicative of a forum spam bot or some other malicious automation. Here’s (one of the) cryptic error messages I encountered; perhaps there were other technical bugs or variables at work here—I don’t know. I”m not going to bore you with all the details by ranting on. The only thing I will say is this: if an application is hanging up or throwing an error based on some specific action a user has invoked—for God’s sake—please!—provide the user with at least some rudimentary feedback relevant to what’s going on in the system, even if it’s a simple Javascript alert box—anything. Just don’t play dumb and behave like nothing is wrong.

That’s all I am going to say.

Here’s the comment I was unable to leave on Smashing Magazine:

In a broad sense I believe User Experience plays a significant role in most—if not all—design disciplines, in the same way mathematics exist as a core element of the Engineering field.

All designers—not just UX specialists—should be thinking about and evangelizing user-experience principles as a way to differentiate their work and justify meaningful design solutions to others.

On another level, I tend to think of UX as the evolution of Industrial Design, essentially leveraging processes and core principles pioneered years ago before our world became dominated by so many screen oriented digital products.

ID traditionally focused on the fundamental relationship between an object’s physical form, function, and aesthetic composition. UX goes one step further considering product interactions and digital systems so complex they simply cannot be understood—let alone resolved—purely through the old ‘form follows function’ mantra preached by ID.