Drum roll, please …—-””’—-…
Introducing: Explorewell, a design reconnaissance blog. I am launching this blog to explore all things design + culture, while maintaining my blog here for my personal work and adventures. Explorewell exists to observe, document and reflect upon how design and culture come together to enrich our lives and add value to our work. The site takes real world observations, travel, field experiences and conversations to further explore their contexts, probe the deeper questions surrounding them, and make sense of how design’s role in them relates to the bigger social picture. Its topics are meant to connect ideas in the social sphere, broaden understanding of design’s role in business and innovation, evaluate shifts in design and culture, and champion beauty.
Bernard’s voice drifted through the humidity of a late spring night over an outdoor dinner table filled with young designers eager to experience how they may use design to make a difference. Many of my favorite moments I spent at PieLab in Greensboro, Alabama, were when dinner turned long—the food and drinks gone, but the conversations rolled on. This particular night, Bernard Cannife was eloquently sharing insights from his experience on the front lines of the changing design world: “Design is, for the first time, at the grown-up table.” For a young graduate, my idealism still mostly intact, the words were high-heart-rate inducing. How exhilarating to enter a field recently given an adult chair! But why now? What had changed? Who did we finally marry to graduate from the kiddie table? What new expectations are placed on us?
For most of history, design and art have been intrinsically linked. But within the last century, design has moved into a field now recognized on its own accord and is more widely understood by the public as separate from fine art. Design was usually considered to be a kind of service shop—one where designers merely fulfill client requests. But today, we’re seeing a shift. Designers, and creatives of all types, are being recognized as a major component of a strong economy, giving those in creative professions more leverage in mainstream culture. Creatives aren’t just bunking up in artist neighborhoods anymore—they now fill the shiny offices of Silicon Valley, Milan, and Tokyo. In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida’s research shows that the Creative Class now makes up almost a third of the workforce and has taken “people who would once have been viewed as bizarre mavericks operating at the bohemian fringe and setting them at the very heart of the process of innovation and economic growth” (p. 6).
The shifting role of designers is the result of many social, cultural and technological changes. In the developed world, we have reached an era where our basic human needs are met by the wonders of mass production. In The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel proposes that in such a culture, we turn to design for the next stride forward. We don’t simply want a refrigerator that works—heavens no! We want one that is stainless steel, has high gloss handles, french doors, an LED touch screen and is energy efficient. We expect every item we purchase to come with a variety of customizable options—to be super-designed. Now that “necessary” items are easy to find and affordable to purchase, there are more boutique versions of products appearing on shelves. In a recent issue of a lifestyle magazine, I came across a handmade Italian cafetera-style coffee maker featured for its craftsmanship and priced at over $5,000. Even coming from a coffee snob, there is no way a coffee maker that costs such an exorbitant amount is going to make coffee that tastes that much more superior to a cheaper option. This is a purchase made sheerly for design value, not functionality.
While artisanal is on the rise, it’s not the only factor behind this movement towards a more recognized culture of design. Many larger companies have also made good design a top priority—seating a designer across the table from the engineer, the R&D officer and the financial advisor. Target, America’s second-largest discount retailer, made design a key driver in elevating its brand. Their logo, branding, advertising, in-store way-finding and store-brand products all have a clean, sophisticated design that makes the shopping experience and brand recognition a step above its competitors’. Home store, IKEA, made modern design affordable to more people by offering modular options, therefore giving the user a large part in composition decisions. This cracked open a skilled, esoteric world of design and made aspects of it available to the population of non-designers. The DIY movement, inspired by the likes of other large brands, including Martha Stewart and HGTV, has contributed to consumers becoming more eager to understand design and intrigued with the invisible designer processes behind their products and experiences. Apple has played an enormous role in making consumers more design-aware. Its ruthless pursuit to perfect user experience has pushed the expectations of consumers time after time. The company makes few things, but makes them well. The touting of their values has instilled the language of design in consumers.
How to start chipping away at the impact of the world wide web on design? It is like showing up at Everest with a toothpick. Its entire experience and usability is based on design. It has surged the need for designers and given pedestrian users an incalculable awareness of how design affects them. It has built the platform for an entire market of websites, apps and the devices that support them. The development of internet-based technology has matured alongside the entrepreneurial and start-up-minded spirit of the young working generation. The new workforce has a firmer grasp than ever on the power of branding and excellence in design practices. With so much of our daily lives now involving some sort of a digital experience, often times the only way to make your company stand out from the others is to employ better design. Postrel observes that “in a crowded marketplace, aesthetics is often the only way to make a product stand out” (The Substance of Style, p. 2). Among the vast world of websites and apps, yours cannot simply “function” but must offer a more beautiful and intuitive experience.
Another factor worth mentioning is the impact of consumers being more aware of their ecological footprint. Even if the vast majority of consumers do not buy into “going green” alternatives, the once counter-cultural movement has procured a place in the mainstream and at times one of the main selling points of a product. Newly conscious of their consumption and discarding habits, consumers often sacrifice to pay a higher price point for goods that have more eco-friendly packaging or are of better quality, ensuring longevity and less waste.
In all of these transitions, design has migrated from being a peripheral service shop, to a partner in the whole development process of innovation, business, message-making and production. In the evolving modern workplace, collaboration is taking precedence and pulling many different “hats” to the table—to equally imagine, plan and develop our collective future. Many workplaces have adopted the brainstorming techniques long-used by designers. Employees from a vast number of non-design sectors have become more sensitive to elements of design, the process of design, and systematic thinking. The information flows both ways—designers are being served other responsibilities and processes of others at the adult table. Indeed it is the very marrying of design and technology that has brought design the largest share of its credibility, making it no longer just “art”. John Maeda made the point in a recent article on CNN.com that “the relevance of design is expanding far beyond visual aesthetics—to everything from tackling global issues such as climate change, to making sense of the overwhelming amounts of data that surrounds us.”
What do we offer to the adult conversation?
Bern’s further commentary that Alabama night etched words in my head that still linger: “Designers are market creators, global thinkers, and brokers of change.”
Among the huge technological implementations of the last decade, designers have been at the forefront of development in the hardware of these products, the aesthetic of the interface and the wireframes of the networks on which they run. Apps were never a “need” in peoples’ lives but now the majority of us probably cannot imagine living without a few staple ones on which we depend. While many of these products were not born in the mind of a designer, it took a designer to give them substance and bring them to life, helping create the new market. We cannot overlook that while we do not only make stuff pretty, it is still the designer who brings actual deliverables to the table—we have to know how to “make pretty” but also “make smart.” We intermediate between consumer voices and an actual understanding of what they want. This translation experience gives us skills as sense-makers, giving us one more asset to add to the table setting. Sense-making is our ability to interpret facts in meaningful ways. However, we must be careful to address real needs in improving the quality of life. “When real needs are neglected, and artificial ones everywhere stimulated into an avid hunger for novelty, sensation and status-appeal…It should not surprise [us] to find a thin and pretentious reality informing the design language of the world” (What is a Designer?, Norman Potter, p. 36).
In our hyper-connected world we are bombarded with information, but information must be deciphered. Designers are able take in the “big picture” while also considering local realities—to fluidly shift from talking about global movements to adjusting a vector’s slope two degrees. “Designers are the best synthesizers in the world. They make a synthesis of human needs, current conditions in an economy, in materials, in sustainability issues—and then what they do at the end, if they are good, is much more than the sum of its parts” (Paola Antonelli treats design as art, TED.com). Our cultural awareness allows us to trace trends, connect ideas, think broadly about the human experience and be more productively reflective. In the flattening world, as Thomas Friedman suggests, everything is so “integrated that there is no ‘out’ and no ‘in’ anymore…every product and many services now are imagined, designed, marketed and built through global supply chains” (“Made in the World,” NY Times, Jan. 29, 2012). Designers must be citizens of the world and simultaneously our local communities.
To be a broker of change is to mediate between the client and audience. We do this well because designers are empathetic and passionate about adding value to the world via our craft. We are problem solvers who can take our analytical methodologies and convert them to engaging channels of change. Rudy VanderLans goes even further to say that designers are not simply “facilitators, but…producers of messages, ideas and products. Not just hired hands, but initiators with personal stake in the projects they [create]” (Emigre 69: THE END, p. 55). Designers must realize their power as message creators to broker positive social change.
As designers find their place in the conversation at the adult table, we must make sure to listen to the others there, reflect, and then using our good manners, voice our unique perspective. Cheers to a new-found seat.
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve:
the fear of failure.”
—Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist
Or as Pilot in Shogun calls it “The Japans.”
A few more belated photos:
I was continually surprised by a new discoveries of Japanese attention to detail. From little baskets next to your table in restaurants to place your bag, scarf, etc., to a small cork to rest your fork on instead of directly on the table, to a hot cloth at the beginning of each meal, to a small sticky pad of paper about one inch square that came with the gum I bought so you’d have a way to wrap it before tossing it. It was also in the details of their architecture: most things were very minimal, but thoroughly considered and intricately designed.
View of Kumamoto from the Castle.
A wonderful mark of what makes a great urban space is that you can have the perks of city life and reasonable density, but yet have green space and tranquility. I loved that in Kumamoto I could easily get anywhere I needed to go on my bike, there were endless winding streets with restaurants and stores in the center, yet I could pass through a fantastic park with green space on the way to the city center. I could be on our street in the city and it would still be completely silent at times. The value of a tranquil atmosphere was very apparent in the Japanese culture. However, it is also a culture of oxymorons—while you can have a perfectly peaceful walk on a city street, you’re usually only blocks away from Pachenko sites—huge casino-type buildings that are basically my inferno on earth. Blaring music, flashing lights of row after row of machines combined with industrial overhead lighting so bright you need sunglasses, smoking indoors, etc. It was almost a game to go in and just see how long you could stand there without having a panic attack. Our street was in what would look like a not-so-safe area next to a train track, were it in Europe or America. Pedro pointed it out, and I quickly caught on to how safe it was though—there were always women walking down our street at night alone, nobody locks their bikes up (you just slide a built-on lock through your back wheel), Pedro’s Japanese co-workers instructed him to just leave the keys in the company-rented car, unlocked, so the next person to need them would have them. I went into a grocery store one day and parked my bike with all of the others. Next to me, someone had left their computer bag in their bike basket while they went in.
Quintessential Japanese house we found on a hike.
Temple we found on the same hike. They all have that unique sloping/curved roof. Very interesting.
Hair salons were everywhere in the city center and obviously a popular industry so I decided to partake in that cultural element one day. And bottom line, just needed a haircut. Many of the the salons, stores and restaurants cross-promote each other by a small table of little postcards/business cards from other businesses near their door or register. Being a designer I usually filled up with a handful of them before leaving a shop because many had really interesting designs. I picked up one that was a cool illustration of a guy in his salon. So when I decided to get a hair cut I emailed him in English to make an appointment, apologizing that I couldn’t speak Japanese. He emailed me back apologizing for his minimal English, but assuring me he had used Google translator. It was the most meticulous haircut I’ve ever had and for that definitely turned out great. Above was his email afterwards. DAYS that he mentions is a cool bar Pedro adored that has an entire wall of CD’s that you can request. They know where everything is and can immediately locate whatever you request.
Small point of interest: Japan has an entire range of toilet experiences. Many of the public ones are the Turkish-style, floor-squatters. A little difficult sometimes for an American. However, the ones in our apartments were like learning to navigate a space ship: it was in Japanese so I couldn’t read all of the options, but out of the like ten buttons (in the below photo half of them are still covered up), I gathered that you can change the toilet seat temperature, the direction the water squirts out, the temperature of the water, etc. Though a little unsure about it at first, I quickly began to wish these would catch on in America.
A documentary I highly recommend:
“Always try to improve on yourself. Always look beyond and above yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft.”
“Once you decide your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success.”