Tag Archives: design

What’s Wrong With Good?

Mostly I’d like to use this post as an opportunity to link to this series of essays by graphic designer Frank Chimero, and to say very emphatically, READ THEM! As he writes about his own personal quest to essentially save his sanity by re-evaluating his work–by trying to rediscover what, if anything, is actually good–he offers a lot of insight into much more than just design. He offers a lot of insight into life. Not only is the message relevant, the narrative is enjoyable to read. And taken as a whole, the essays say everything that needs to be said.

Well, almost.

One reason I’m posting his essays here is because they made me think further about something I’ve been pondering anyway. Namely: Why does good sometimes go bad? (Or, more often, just mediocre?) Why is an artist’s, writer’s, designer’s, or musician’s early work–even if not very refined–so often more moving and more powerful than their later work? What goes wrong?

I first began thinking about this question as it relates to musicians. Some of the music I love is a bit obscure, or at least started that way. But across many years, I’ve seen much of it become less obscure–more popular. And as that happens, it often becomes less good. There is something (something that is the opposite of magical) that happens once a work of art seeks to appeal to the masses. Often, it becomes just a watered down version of itself.

And it’s so disappointing.

I could go on a tirade about what the masses love (think: watered down) and why, but I’ll refrain. I’ll refrain, I’ll refrain, I’ll refrain. Because really, it doesn’t matter; it just is.

I’m not even sure if I’m posing this as a question (Why does this happen?), or just making a wandering statement about my observations. But either way, I feel that more often than not, as a maker’s work gains more popularity, something gets lost along the way.

Is it because intentions are more pure in the beginning? Is it the amount of time spent on early work? Is it that passion and authenticity wane?

An unknown artist, with nothing to lose, doesn’t really have a choice but to pursue making what he or she is passionate about. The work can be original, authentic, hopefully unique, maybe even a bit wild or ground-breaking. However, once hit with a bit of fame, notoriety, acclaim–whatever you want to call it–there are expectations to meet and pressures to succumb to. Time pressures, money-making pressures, people-pleasing pressures. Maybe a musician spent years crafting a debut record, and maybe it was a culmination of a life’s work in some ways. If it’s successful, then what? More work is expected, and chances are the process will be forced into a speedier ritual. And chances are, something in the quality or uniqueness will be downgraded a notch or two.

Personally, I think there could be any number of causes, depending on who is the maker in question. But too often, I think it stems from giving the people what they want, from trying to appeal too generally, and from straying from the original passion, intention, purpose, and pleasure that came from making the work.

This is probably a complex issue–one that could be deeply analyzed–and I know I’m only scratching the surface. I’m not delusional enough to think this situation will ever change on a grand scale, but it’s refreshing to see someone like Chimero–undoubtedly a successful young designer–questioning this issue. I, for one, appreciate his willingness to not just accept his own status quo, even if it’s all a result of him being “not a very balanced person.”

It’s okay, Frank. I can relate.


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.

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?

You say to-may-to; I say to-mah-to. You say good; I say what?

The ever-elusive question: How to define good design?

I’ll never claim to be the authority on this subject, but I do occasionally (okay, more like often) take umbrage with the ways in which good design is defined or determined.

One could say I’m not easily impressed:

Aesthetically beautiful?  Not enough.  Functional?  Not enough.  Thought provoking?  Getting closer.

What does it take to really, truly make a good design?  I don’t personally believe an object, building, or graphic piece must embody all the typical good-defining attributes to be considered good, but it certainly has to have a hefty amount of substance.  Serious substance will get me to look deeper, to think a little harder, to perhaps question the validity of a design.  And that, to me, is often what makes a design at least verging on good.

But in truth, I’m not all that fond of labeling design—or anything else for that matter—good or bad.  Good is relative; bad is relative.  All is relative!

Certainly there are designs that better address a set of criteria we may determine for evaluating their goodness, but [yes, there’s always a but with me] again, isn’t it all relative?

And this is where I can profess my love for design: We can argue about good, bad, or indifference until the end of time, and probably not come up with a straight answer.  If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I love a good argument.  Not to mention, I prefer questions over answers.

After all the end-of-year and end-of-decade lists of best/worst everything, I had to really ponder this idea of best and worst, good and bad.  How does this label get determined?  Well, the truth is, anyone can publish a best and worst list—but what does that actually mean?

For the sake of argument, I’d like to agree with Peter Hall’s stance that design is in essence about argument:

“Many objects are designed not to be useful but to make an argument.  And my contention is that every object is an argument of some sort, and its strength or weakness as an argument is a good guide to its value…But the most valuable effect of considering an object as an argument is that it allows us to look under the rhetorical hood and consider it not as an inevitable or neutral invention but as something that embodies a point of view.  The iPod may seem like an innocuous music-playing device, but in fact it is an argument about how we should navigate, purchase, download, and listen to sound.”

The argument that design is inherently about a problem/solution relationship is often used and often valid, though this can be a slippery slope as well.  As times change, problems change.  And therefore, solutions must change.  So while designs are often revered for being good due to their longevity or timelessness, it’s not always that simple.  And dare I say that some of the best design minds were simply ahead of their time?  While their designs might not have been extremely useful at the time of their creation, they may have inspired forward thinking, change, progression, and questions—perhaps in the form of an argument.  I can refer back to Ledoux and Boullée as architectural visionaries referenced in a previous post.  This is just the type of argument I am speaking of.  It is a questioning and challenging of the status quo.

Perhaps rather than make a statement, a good design should pose a question—forcing the critical thinking portions of our brains to fire into action.  Something that is merely beautiful, functional, and readily accepted doesn’t easily fit this profile.  So does that make it good?  Or bad?  Hmmm.

Now let’s argue; shall we?

What Language Does Design Speak?

Design, in all its contexts, communicates.  Imagery, text, physical location and context, connotations–it all sends a message.  And we all interpret messages differently, depending on our own knowledge, education, preconceived beliefs or ideas, among numerous other factors.

The images below are taken from a currently vacant site on the outskirts of Portland’s Pearl District.  The sign is part of an on-site advertising campaign for what I presume to be a new condominium tower.  The two images represent opposite sides of one sign.

I’d like to know what these images communicate to you (and you, and you, and you!).  Anything and everything–whether it be the actual message, the signage, the location, etc.  I would like to publish some responses as part of the post, so get commenting!