A roundtable discussion on design, with Zean Nielsen of Bang & Olufsen, Josh Handy of Method Products, Gary Smith of Herman Miller, Dick Boak of Martin Guitars and Peter Clarke of Product Ventures.
What is your view of the future of design?
Zean Nielsen: A lot of people have a muddied perception of what true design is. They struggle to see the difference between fashion, style and design. Something that is fashionable right now or stylistic doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good design.
Many of the newer designers are more stylists than they are true designers; they design with a specific purpose in mind. But that doesn’t mean that design is being threatened at all. I just think that people need to be educated a little bit more as to what is the definition of design.
There’s probably too much emphasis that design has to be commercial and sellable to millions and millions of people. A lot of designers have great ideas but then somewhere during the process their designs lose their way in the name of commercialism.
Josh Handy: Design will cease to be a department within an organization and evolve into much more of a collaboration between departments and disciplines. Real design is not being done by someone sitting at a CAD machine. It’s actually being done throughout the organization.
For example, by the time I design a bottle, I already know what material it’s made of, where it’s going to be made, what color the product is going to be, where it’s going to be sold, who the target market is, and the problem we’re trying to solve. All of these variables have been decided elsewhere in the organization before it comes to me to bring it all together into a product form.
The design profession is going to shift dramatically away from the individual creation of objects and much more toward how organizations solve really complex issues like sustainability. Organizations need to get a grip on these issues pretty quickly if they are going to survive over the coming decades.
Gary Smith: Design will be increasingly involved in solving social issues. At Herman Miller, we think in terms of human-centered problem-solving, beyond commercial or consumer products. We’re going to see design as a fundamental approach to the intractable challenges of mankind.
Design needs to be fully integrated and sympathetic to culture, science and philosophy. When I think of the future of design, I don’t think of things to buy; I think of problems being solved.
In consumer goods, the problems may be universality of use, safety or comfort. Herman Miller is not making chairs; we’re trying to make people more comfortable, healthier or more productive. But design is also a fundamental player in logistics challenges and health sciences. The design is what we conceive as a solution to a problem.
Dick Boak: I’m a believer in form and function. There’s great beauty in simplicity. I can’t help but think of Steve Jobs and the Apple products, where the pure functionality and simplicity of the product is beautiful but there are also so many subtle points.
As long as the people who hold the purse strings place some value on design, it will be part of our culture. If they don’t, then we are going to get strictly utilitarian, cold, concrete design structures and that doesn’t serve our culture very well.
Certain architectural projects have realized that a bold design can really contribute to the success of a project. If the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame had just built a square, box structure, it would not have been as successful. The design became a destination. I think people are getting that and that’s fueling some good design these days.
Peter Clarke: Design has come a long way in recent years in terms of establishing the value of design thinking. Big business is embracing design methodologies and it now has a seat at the executive table. Designers are more valued because more and more businesses are appreciating the way designers approach problems and unlock solutions.
It’s going to be really interesting, though, to see where design is going to go as it continues to establish itself as a member of that executive table. As big companies like Procter & Gamble begin to address the emerging markets — China, Brazil and India — and the United States becomes the new “old world,” what will that mean for North American designers as demands take us away from home? We will need to define our role on a global basis.
What is the greatest challenge facing designers?
Nielsen: Designers can’t allow themselves to become corrupted in the process of bringing a design to the market. By corrupted, I mean giving in when the manufacturer says the design can’t be done because their equipment is not tooled for it, for example. A good designer will then say, “okay, then you’ll have to come up with tooling that makes that possible.”
Bang & Olufsen works with freelancers; we don’t have our own in-house designers. Often they come to us and say, “We want loud speakers to look like a pencil.” Our argument is, “We can’t put good sound into that shape.” Their push back is, “You’ve got to figure that out and have technology meet the design.”
That’s where that synergy starts to happen, where one and one becomes three. Then you create something that’s timeless and excellent because the world of technology and engineers meets the dreamer, the designer or architect who has the idea. Together, they come up with something fantastic.
Handy: The greatest challenge is getting people to understand the difference between artists and operators. In the past, design has been all about artists creating beautiful things. Design is now much more about the overarching capabilities to influence every aspect of the consumer’s experience of a company product.
It’s a battle between this idea of stylists and innovators. Designers need to get involved in bigger problems, like how to design products that have no impact on the earth and its resources. There are complex and specific issues involved when you are making hundreds, thousands, or millions of products.
That’s a huge responsibility that the design community is not really facing up to. Designers have interactions with most other parts of the organization and are in a unique position of influence. Designers should let go of the craft-based artist persona and recognize their true role within the organization.
Smith: One of the greatest challenges facing designers is rejecting the allure of prevailing commercial sensibilities to do something truly original and meaningful. The work must be grounded in some core premise and have some reason for existence.
Designers can make a great living creating meaningless variations of things that already exist or a brand that’s mostly about themselves. But they can’t build an important body of work through that type of approach. The designer is just the vehicle through which a problem is solved or someone’s life is improved.
Sometimes the design is just something simply to bring a smile to your face. I don’t want to make it sound like design is only about solving global problems. But if the work has some point of purpose, it will in fact result in what designers are seeking, which is personal success.
Boak: Certainly, the economy is a challenge. I work for a guitar company and guitars are considered a leisure-time product, like boats and Ski-Doos. When the economy gets tough, those leisure-time products tend to suffer. When the economy is good, then people jump in and buy them again.
The same is true for design, to
A lot of colleges are pumping out designers and graphic artists, and so competitively there is no shortage because it’s a popular curriculum. The biggest challenge is to find a job where design is valued and where there’s not too great a compromise in one’s artistic ideals.
Clarke: As design becomes more universally utilized, the unfortunate reality is that it may become commoditized as business seeks to standardize what isn’t standard in an attempt to manage costs. Design methodologies and associated costs vary based on ability, experience, opinion and the particulars of any given challenge.
Creative thinking, by its nature, is spontaneous and random, and specific outcomes cannot be predicted. Yet, business desires “apples-to-apples” comparisons between proposals to ensure the best possible price is attained.
Designers must resist commoditization by emphasizing the uniqueness of their God-given talents. The benefits associated with approaching a challenge with a designer’s sensibility must also be emphasized. Business, in return, needs to appreciate diversity and recognize that it’s far more important to compare the value that is derived from a given proposal, rather than to evaluate only the cost of the approach.
How do you know when you’ve arrived at a good design?
Nielsen: When you’ve elevated above fashion and styling, then you have great, timeless design. You have a design that will look good 50 years from now and that would have looked good 20 years ago. If design can meet that challenge today, then I think we’re fine.
For example, Arne Jacobsen designed the Swan and Egg chairs back in the 1950s. Those are beautiful chairs today, decades later. People still want them because they are so simple. They are not necessarily super comfortable, but they are well designed and thought out.
Handy: One way I know that I’ve done a good job is that people buy the product. Repeat purchase is a great indicator that we have something that people like. We also like to see people talking about the design work we do through social media, which is often a great indication that we’ve done something good.
My true acid test is that whenever I present a new design or product, I just sit there and watch people’s eyes and faces. You can tell within 10 seconds what their initial emotional response to the work is and get a good idea how consumers are going to react to it on the shelf. That’s my leading indicator.
Smith: A great design bears up well under deep examination. It improves life in a manner that is both efficient and beautiful, and stirs both admiration and desire.
Efficiency means the least amount of total resources was used to achieve the result. In execution, beauty becomes more broadly defined as the synthesized perfection of material choice, operational process, connection
of elements, physical beauty and the human experience.
By that definition, I could find beauty in the common paper clip. It’s the perfection of the amount of material, the shape of the material, the efficiency with which it’s made, the clarity of purpose and ease of use. On the other hand, a chair that’s exquisite but uncomfortable is pretty damn ugly to me.
Boak: I work on collaborations with famous guitar players to build their “signature” guitars. Sometimes their ideas are inspired and sometimes they are ego-driven. Sometimes the ideas are uneducated or just not very good and so the designer has to be a shrewd negotiator. Design is two-way street.
I know that I’ve achieved a good design when there aren’t excessive elements introduced to the product, when it feels complete, and when there’s enough pizzazz to make the guitar something special but not tedious or gaudy (nothing against Antonio Gaudi!). It’s like literature, where you don’t want to hammer people over the head with your story, but rather coax them into it through tastefulness and tact.
Clarke: A great design is not just what’s beautiful or unique, but also has the ability to elicit desire, fulfill a purpose and provide value. When you’re evaluating what constitutes good design, it’s important to look beyond appearance and consider its purpose. Good design is also about balance. After you consider all things, does it achieve the objectives without negative consequences? Good design is purposeful, meaningful and memorable.
Which designers do you most admire and why?
Nielsen: I think that Philippe Starck is amazing. His ability to design both furniture and hotels and everything that he touches — he just understands how to distill things down to their essence and then interpret that into beautiful designs.
Frank Lloyd Wright is amazing. His buildings were meant to be in harmony with the people who lived or worked in them and their environment. I am no expert on him, but I believe he designed everything from skyscrapers to hotels, schools, museums and even churches. He was incredibly versatile.
Handy: Chris Hacker of Johnson & Johnson is doing a great job by bringing sustainability to a huge company. What I love about Chris is that he is working in the mass market. He is bringing environmental and design sensibility to products that millions of people use all over the world.
That’s not easy in a big, consumer packaged-goods company. You’ve got to be able to show a return on investment. Chris has told me about huge successes in places like the Band-Aid business, where design changes brought so much more incremental growth to Johnson & Johnson.
Smith: I’ve always admired Buckminster Fuller. His work is a complex and rich mix of philosophy, invention, mathematics, architecture, materials and design. His work is astounding on many levels and I find it difficult to fully comprehend the breadth of his thinking and applied creativity.
I certainly appreciate deeply the designers who have built Herman Miller, both historically through today. But I also have some deep concerns for the profession. I worry at times that the world misunderstands design as the hand behind disposable trinkets in our landfills.
I’d like to see a greater understanding of design as a way to improve the quality of our lives. The world needs more stuff, apparently. That’s not what I consider to be design, but design can be misunderstood that way.
Boak: One of my heroes is Emilio Ambasz, an Italian architect and designer. I love his design work because it’s radical, it’s bold and it combines the environment with the architecture so that they’re almost inseparable.
I also love Dean Kamen, the designer of the Segway. Apple has a unified vision of its products, much in the same way that Martin guitars all have the appearance of having come from the same vision. They all look like part of a family.
Clarke: I had the pleasure and honor of interning with Neils Diffrient early in my career. Neils is truly an icon within the world of industrial design. For 25 years, he worked for Henry Dreyfuss, who was one of the founding fathers of industrial design.
Neils has worked on so many different things during his career — computers, exhibits, trucks, airplane interiors, corporate identity programs — but he’s best known for his award-winning furniture and his thoughtful approach to ergonomics. He’s the co-author of Humanscale, which designers use to understand the range and percentiles of various human measurements — hands, legs, and so forth. Neils cares so much about getting it right that he measured the human body so his designs would create the best user experience.
He designed the Thinking Man’s working chair, also known as the Jefferson chair, and a lot of other profound furniture. He is an extraordinarily talented, prolific and confident man. He’s one of the icons of industrial design and a real mentor of mine.
What is your favorite design concept of all time?
Nielsen: I love the new Audi A5. They found a way to make a car look amazing without it being gaudy. They really encapsulated smooth, beautiful lines and created a car that everyone would desire. There’s a Danish expression that a gentleman should be like his shoes: shiny, but not flashy. The Audi A5 is kind of like that. It’s beautiful and shiny, but not too flashy.
Handy: I can tell you about something we are prototyping right now at Method and that I’m extremely proud to be involved in. It’s more of a process than a product: We’re collecting tons of plastic that washes up on beaches around the North Pacific Gyre, grinding it up and making new bottles from it.
So, rather than doing bad by putting new plastic out in the world and rather than being neutral by just recycling plastic that’s already out there, we’re actually extracting plastic from the environment and making bottles from it.
Smith: The bicycle is an amazing concept because it may be the most efficient means of movement ever devised. It has conceptually withstood untold variations in material and design. It continues to be refined, specialized and perfected to different applications.
It gracefully adapts to people of all abilities and it is universally recognized and understood throughout the world — not to mention that they are amazingly fun to ride.
And I note, who among us does not count learning to ride a bicycle as one of life’s fondest, simple memories?
Boak: I’ve been to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water on three separate occasions. Every time I visit that site — or any of his sites — I’m blown away by Wright’s insistence that he knew better than the customer with respect to design, that he was more learned. Sometimes it wasn’t a great thing for the particular customer, but it was always in furtherance of design and art.
Clarke: I’m the grandson of a master cabinetmaker, and so the one design that stands out above all the rest to me is the Thonet Chair #14, also known as the “chair of chairs.” It’s the bistro chair you see everywhere and yet it’s also in museums. It was created in 1859, and was the first chair to become an industrial product.
It’s made of bent beech wood and is very elegant in its beauty as well as clear and precise in its design. It is so smartly done because it is created with only six parts and six screws, and is extremely efficient to distribute as it ships compactly as a kit. It’s still in production today and still looks fresh because of its simplicity.
My father was a fine artist and he always said that if you could do something that looks like it was effortlessly and purposefully done, it’s really good art.
The Thonet Chair #14 is just really eloquent design. I wish that kind of design would happen more often.