Category Archives: Rants

It’s Just a Spoon Rest

“It’s just a spoon rest; what’s the big deal?!”

“No, no, no! It’s symbolic of so much more; it’s not just a spoon rest!”

Here I give you a snippet of my internal dialogue—the conversation I have with myself after getting really worked up over something so seemingly innocuous as a spoon rest. (Or, I should say, a Pot Clip, as the product in question has so aptly been named—not to be confused with your average spoon rest.)

Maybe the timing was just right. Maybe I was in just the perfect mood, the perfect frame of mind, to be so irritated by…nothing.

Maybe I was still internally dripping and drowning in the sorrow I felt after finishing What Is the What last night, a novel by Dave Eggers that tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee—just one of the more than 27,000 Lost Boys of Sudan. It is a story that is at once tragic and beautiful, full of undying optimism under ridiculously devastating circumstances. And there is no doubt that it forces the reader to be confronted with the excesses we live with—to understand the true basic necessities of life, and of happiness, even.

So the next morning—this morning—when I saw an innocent Twitter post with a picture of the Pot Clip, the dichotomy that my mind was forced to grapple with was, apparently, too much. This is how it goes sometimes: I find myself with excessive amounts of what I’d almost call anger over something like a Pot Clip.

So here we are.

It is—and yet it is not—about the Pot Clip. It’s about what the Pot Clip symbolizes to me. In a nutshell, it epitomizes excess. It symbolizes the items we have at our disposal (literally) to fill our lives with ease, with happiness, with stuff. What does it say about the state of our lives when we put forth the energy, money, time, materials, advertising and marketing dollars, shelf space, world space, head space, etc. necessary to design, manufacture, and sell a product that will stylishly keep us from dirtying a counter with a spoon while we cook?

To me, it says that life is too damn easy.

[I should, in an effort at full disclosure, out myself as someone who experiences mild anxiety over the idea of having too much stuff. I live in a space of about 400 square feet, which is quite small by regional standards—yet not in many other locales. My belongings are pretty spare. It wasn’t always this way, but now that it is, I feel much more free and can’t imagine living any other way. If my cabinets and closets begin to feel too full, I know I must take a step back and rethink The State of My Stuff.]

This scenario, like many, offers a perfect opportunity for me to once again express my love/hate relationship with design. I both love and hate that design infiltrates everything we experience and live with on a daily basis. I love that any argument about how we live, what we live with, where we live, between which walls and under which roof, how we get around, what we eat off of and how we prepare our food—is an argument about design.

Some designer was commissioned to create the Pot Clip; someone thought it was a nifty, and apparently, marketable idea. Turns out it was; the Pot Clip now appears to be sold under numerous different brand names. It comes in different colors, even. Imagine it! Pink, blue, red, green, yellow, black—you can have a Pot Clip in whichever color perfectly correlates with your kitchen or your mood.

The Infamous Pot Clip

It’s nonsense. And it’s wasteful. And I can’t think of it any other way. Are we ever going to stop designing, manufacturing, marketing, selling, and buying ridiculous items like this that will eventually end up in a trash heap?

I think likely not.

My next thought is: What would we all do if we weren’t making stuff like this? From start to finish, think how many people are employed in the entire process of the Pot Clip—from its conceptual birth to its conceptual death in the trash heap.

This is the point at which my brain spins and spins and spins—and I must stop thinking about the Pot Clip.

It’s just too much.

I feel very strongly that there are much better, much more important, much more useful ways for human brain power, creativity, and design skills to exist in this world. Yet sometimes an innocuous item like the Pot Clip tells me that maybe I’m the one being ridiculous. That maybe my undying optimism about our potential as human beings and as designers is ridiculous.

But either way, it is stories such as that of Valentino Achak Deng that keep me grounded. It is stories such as his that allow me to see a Pot Clip as symbolic of so much more. It is stories such as his that keep me from filling my life with needless things.

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iToy Indulgence

What I’m about to write isn’t really about design. Or maybe it is; I haven’t decided yet. What it most definitely is about is perspective. As in, we’ve lost it. It is this lost—or maybe just general lack of—perspective that originally frustrated me as a design student. I guess not much has changed.

With Apple’s recent release of the iPad, and now the iPhone 4, I find myself once again turning sour on humanity, against our excessive consumption, against our getting caught up in whatever is new and shiny and sparkly. I’m amazed—and kind of appalled—at how much time people spend talking about these new products, as if they’re some kind of vital life force.

It’s not my intent to get righteous about belongings; I have a couple nice things of my own. But when I think about an iPhone, its pervasiveness, and the fact that bazillions (yes, I said bazillions) of current iPhone users will continue to buy the latest and greatest model—I have to ask: What does it really do? And I guess if this post has anything to do with design, here it is:

What does the iPhone really do that makes it so necessary?

In my casual observance of its use, I’d say what makes it so great to its owners is that it gives them 24/7 access to the internet—and likely—to tell the world what they think, via Twitter or Facebook, for instance. Huh. Just as I wrote the previous sentence, I had a little epiphany of sorts: the iPhone allows people to feel connected to something. To have someone to talk to when no one is around. To communicate their thoughts to everyone, or no one, or the universe, or whatever. Huh.

So tell me this: How much new technology does it take to reconnect a bunch of humans who are excessively disconnected from one another? I ask this question because we humans have designed ourselves into this scenario. And now it almost seems we’re trying to design our way out of it. It blows my mind.

I am a user of both Twitter and Facebook, but I’m not currently an iPhone user. Maybe someday I will be; I’m not sure. It’s not that I’m automatically opposed to new technology, nor to our new methods of communication. But I occasionally get a bit disturbed by the lack of substance and the lack of real human connections that, in my opinion, are at least partially inspired by our über “connectivity.” We are digital and electronic phantoms—constantly connected, but in a fantastically disconnected way.

Excessive discussion about the state of our technologically inspired communication seems somewhat futile. It is what it is. But being a Twitter user has allowed me to bear way too much witness to how people react when a new “toy” is released. Basically, Twitter goes nuts whenever Apple releases a new product, or makes any kind of significant change to a current product. In that sense, the designers at Apple are controlling us like the brainless robots we apparently are. Dangling a shiny new toy in front of us, making us salivate, making us numb ourselves to the reality of the human condition with a new piece of technology to get excited over.

Am I the only one who finds this disturbing? Am I the only one who sees it this way? Am I reading too much into this? Am I asking pointless questions? Should I just buy a damn iPhone?

Sour Grapes

And here she goes again…

Another Portland design event brings another set of thoughts and, likely, questions.  I’d like to start by climbing to the highest rooftop I can find, so I can do my shout from the rooftops rant.  But instead, I’ll settle for this metaphorical rooftop I have here.

This story will begin and end with grapes.  That’s right—grapes.

Last night I attended an open house at Portland’s Leftbank Project, a cool revamp of a 1923 building originally designed by architect A.E. Doyle.  In theory, I’m a supporter of the building and its purpose: to connect and support mission-driven businesses in an inspiring environment, and to do so in an ecologically responsible way.  But based on my recent post about The GreenVille Project—one of Leftbank’s tenants—one could say I’m a bit leery of what this “mission-driven” concept sometimes means.

I was hanging out in the office of dc202 design collective, and became privy to a conversation that really threw me for a loop.  One of dc202’s neighbors (a Leftbank tenant) came by and started grilling a dc202 employee about their sustainability practices.  I guess it’s fine to ask the questions, but here’s where it turned strange:

Apparently, there was a question posed about where the grapes dc202 was feeding its guests came from.  As in, the neighborly tenant thought it necessary to remark on the large size of said grapes and therefore, the fact that they probably weren’t from the local farmer’s market.  No, sorry people, the grapes were from Costco.

Oh, how I hate that I have to repeat myself from a previous post, but:

Really?!?!

Again, let’s not get caught up in the details, folks.  Before we start nit-picking about grapes, we’ve got to think about the bigger picture here.  Sorry, but local farmer’s market grapes will do nary a thing to save the world.  Yeah, yeah, I get it that all those little actions add up to a greater whole.  I’m not completely oblivious to this concept.

But for the sake of point-making, how about I call attention to another silly sustainability detail from last night: the PLA “biodegradable” corn cups used to serve wine.  I could go on and on about the fact that the term biodegradable is awfully generous, given the process required for these cups to biodegrade, and the lack of availability of said processes.  I could rant about the fact that most people don’t have access to the required commercial composting system—and that these cups can’t be recycled—so more often than not end up in landfills, or contaminating recycled traditional plastics.  I could go on for hours about the fact that these cups are made from genetically modified corn, and that the epidemic agribusiness of corn growth is extremely harmful to the environment—by using excessive amounts of insecticides and herbicides, and contributing to soil erosion and water pollution.

Yes, I could do all of that.  And for the sake of illustrating my point, I just did.  But the real point I’d like to make here is that if we all can’t get off of our sustainability high-horses and stop this nit-picking about silly details, we’re never going to get anywhere.

News flash: the problem is much bigger and much deeper than grapes or corn cups.

I guess what it comes down to for me is this:

Are grapes and corn cups really worth fighting over?

I’m beginning to feel that sustainability—a word I’m starting to despise—has just become another way for people to express their superiority, their virtuosity, their perceived willingness to do the right thing. It’s another topic to fight about, and most of the arguments are truly futile.

I waver between feeling that there is hope for change, and feeling that we should all just do the best we can, and most importantly—live and let live. Because really, if we aren’t willing to seriously tackle the root of this problem, which in my opinion is over-population, chances of any major turn-around in the state of our environment are slim to none.

So let’s just stop with the sour grapes, please.

Climate Change: It’s About Humans, After All

This post is part of Blog Action Day ’09, a worldwide event with thousands of bloggers writing about one topic–climate change–today.

As much as I am a lover of concepts and theories, sometimes it is important to put human faces to these abstract concepts we concern ourselves with.  Climate change is one of those issues; it is often faceless, nameless, not human.

While climate change is not directly an issue I choose to rant about with any regular or particular fervor, poverty is.  And the two are more directly related than is often realized.  As with many issues faced by world citizens, the poor bear the worst brunt, and they often are not the most significant causers.  If I can do nothing more than be a voice for the poor, who are often voiceless, I will at least feel that I’ve done something.  The truth is that my regular life, my regular education, my regular privilege—all give me the opportunity to speak.  The poor don’t usually have this opportunity, because without privilege, education, and the confidence born from them, no one wants to listen.

I prefer to take the stance that climate change is a humanitarian issue, not just an environmental one.  Maybe it seems a bit moronic, and blatantly apparent to state that humans and environment must cohabitate peacefully, but I still believe it needs to be said.  I’m constantly drowning in drivel and droning about greenhouse gases, global warming, peak oil, the evil of cars, conserving water, sustainable-this, sustainable-that, eco-this, eco-that, green-this, green-that—but rarely, if ever do I hear anyone talk about what any of this means, and who it’s really going to affect.

The truth is, those who will suffer most from the effects of climate change are—you guessed it—the poor.  And the even sadder truth is that they are, in most cases, the smallest contributors to the problem.

I could say that design is just a small piece of the climate change puzzle.  But I like to think big.  Holistically.  Outside the box.  And so I will say that design is the entire puzzle.  Pretty much everything we look at, touch, inhabit, drive, ride, wear, write on, write with, type on, research with, eat from, drink from—is designed. Our lifestyles have been designed.  Designers shape the world by creating the things we live with.

It’s a powerful position to be in—and as with any power—it can be abused.

This topic is so vast that my monologue could become a book if I’m not careful, so now I’ll have to reel it in a bit.  In order to make this effective, I have to simplify to ideas, not details.

It is my opinion that most of the current tactics we employ for being ecologically conscious are simply futile and not effective.  I don’t think it’s enough to merely utilize different products and materials that allow us to continue going on about our lives in a “business as usual” kind of way.  I believe that if we truly want to have an impact on climate change, we must change our behavior.  We must redesign the way we live.  The great thing is that it’s possible.  If we were able to design our lives as they are now, why can’t we redesign them to effectively survive our current and future environmental conditions?  We are humans, after all.  We are adaptable.

On the other hand, the unfortunate part about this is that I believe it requires doing less, not more.  We can’t continue to be consumers of objects and things the way we currently are.  We can’t continue to build and make and build and make at the rate we currently are.  What this really means is that we can’t design the way we currently are.

It is far more sustainable to reuse and adapt what we already have—buildings and objects—than to create new ones, no matter how the new ones are made.

So what does this mean for designers?  Honestly, I’m not sure.  But I believe that if the focus of our intentions changes, the work that is spawned will follow suit.  If you keep in mind the faces of the innocent human beings your work will affect, chances are you will come up with a solution that may hurt them less.  If you recognize that every action you take has a resulting reaction—even though it may be one you can’t see—chances are you’ll make different choices.  If you consider that by designing or using something wasteful, someone across the globe may lose his access to food, water, and shelter—maybe you’ll reconsider.

Really, it’s a simple set of solutions, but it’s a complicated world we live in.  And while the optimist in me believes all this is possible, the cynic in me believes it is not probable.  We are, in fact, adaptable but we are also a species like all others—which means “survival of the fittest” is at play.  In this case, I’m afraid those who are fittest are those who have the most money.

Think back to Hurricane Katrina.  Who suffered the most?  Those who were most poor. Those who didn’t have the means to escape in time, simply didn’t.

There is an entire population of people, spread far and wide across the globe, who don’t have the tools, technology, or money to deal with the ramifications of our gluttonous lifestyles.  So if we won’t make drastic changes and sacrifices for the sake of the Earth, how about for the sake of the innocent people who will die if we don’t?

Save the Polar Bears: Build a Shopping Mall

Honesty.  Forthrightness.  Candor.

Just call it like it is.  Is that too much to ask?

I suppose it’s just human nature—a form of self-preservation—to use popular ideas to benefit oneself.  I’m not much of a businessperson or economic genius of any sort, but I do understand that surely this is an important undercurrent in moneymaking business models.  Capitalize on trends—sounds like a smart enough idea.

However, it disturbs me deeply to see ideas that were rooted in benevolence become mutated into marketing ploys, preying upon the emotions of well-intentioned people.

At this stage in the game, it is no longer even worth discussing whether or not architecture should be designed and built in the most ecologically responsible way.  It is pretty much a given at this point.  But where ideas, ideals, and ethics diverge is in the practical application of this theory—i.e. how we execute the plan.

I’m educated as a designer, so I tend to approach most topics as I would a design problem.  Any designer worth their salt will tell you that a good design is hardly possible without a solid driving concept.  The concept is like the backbone, the foundation.  It gets you through the dark and stormy times when you want to go all willy-nilly and get hung up on the details.  Don’t get me wrong; details matter, but concept must come first.  Without a concept that is evident and ever flowing throughout a design, the details really aren’t effective.

So when I read the Vision of The Greenville Project, a new shopping mall developer with Eva Longoria Parker as one of its partners, I think about the sustainability concept and I get a little green, as in feeling a bit greenwashed.  The fact that we have had to coin the term greenwashing to explain the practice of expressing “unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue” indicates to me that the well-intentioned sustainability and green building movements have gone way off track.

My biggest question is this: Can a shopping mall truly be sustainable?

I don’t doubt that one shopping mall can be better or worse than another as far as its environmental impact goes.  But isn’t it a bit of an oxymoron to claim that a project that inherently feeds the consumerism monster is doing a good deed for the environment?

By the sounds of GreenVille’s Vision, one would think they really are going to save the polar bears by building shopping malls:

“It was probably the video of a polar bear drowning from exhaustion because there is not enough ice left to rest on.  Yes, that was enough.  Enough to first devastate us, then enrage us, and ultimately motivate us to want to take a stand.”

Really?!?!

There are a few things about GreenVille’s promotional material that I take umbrage with, and this is one of them.  How does building a shopping mall do anything to positively affect the melting ice caps?  If anything, it does just the opposite.

Yes, there are better and worse ways of building.  And yes, GreenVille seems intent on employing certain “green” standards, such as utilizing alternative energy sources, conserving water, and encouraging patrons to use public or other alternative modes of transportation.  I would agree that these steps are better choices than some others GreenVille could make.  But I can’t get behind the concept that building any kind of shopping mall is going to save polar bears from drowning.  Or add any positive ecological impact for that matter.  It could be done in worse ways, but do GreenVille’s choices really merit such virtuous talk?

It’s not that I believe we should all have the same ideals, passions, or ethics.  I don’t even want that; it would make for quite a boring world.  But I do believe in calling it like it is.  If you want to be a shopping mall developer—fine.  Just don’t call it sustainable.  There is nothing about our current consumer behavior that is truly sustainable.  And to insinuate that a shopping mall is going to save the Earth from certain disaster is rather insulting to the intelligence of the public at large.

And maybe I’m being too much of a wordsmith here, but when a company’s tag line combines the words “hip” and “sustainable,” this says to me, “Sustainability is hip.  Let’s profit from it.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Just be honest, please.