December 17, 2010

Bad Design



Design thrives on function; it lives, breathes, eats purpose and use. To achieve good design in something, first a designer asks, “How is it to be used?” Or designers might also want to know, “What do you want it to do?” This works universally for architecture, coffee grinders, weapons or pharmaceuticals; you find out what the end-user (client) wants and work out the kinks to make the thing (product) to be made.

It’s the philosophy of telos, defining the purpose via the schematics of functionality. When a designer steps outside of that structure he/she becomes something other than a designer; he/she becomes an artist.

Don’t get me wrong: I suppose designers can be called “artists” as long as we understand that doing so is framing them within ancient aesthetics, returning to classic art theories that handed out the title of “artist” to anyone engaged in the “right making” of any thing, whatever that entailed, regardless of whether it was culinary or carpentry.

A recent New York Times piece muddles this issue further by confusing the nature of design with the contemporary artmaking practice of process art. In her article on the German designer Konstantin Grcic (GEAR-tichich), Alice Rawsthorn mistakes his innovative designs as being determined through a methodology of process artmaking, when in fact Mr. Grcic is simply designing things artfully.

Mr. Grcic recently assembled (curated?) a number of objects whose design he has admired, and these objects happen to be (mostly) black rectangular things, and presented them together in an exhibition “Black2” at the Swiss Institute in Rome. There you will find a Marshall amplifier, a gravestone, a television set, a floppy disc, a Moleskine notebook, etc. Mr. Grcic also includes one of his own “designs,” his Diana_B table.

Well and good. But it is Ms. Rawsthorn’s fuzzy impression of his “design process” that caught my attention:

“Many designers begin a new project by imagining the end result, but Mr. Grcic starts by anticipating how it will be used and shapes it accordingly. This means that the form of the object evolves during the design process, and is determined by its function and constraints.”(1)

This reveals either Ms. Rawsthorn misinterpreted what Mr. Grcic may have said, or that she does not understand the basics of how form might be determined by process, and how process art is not design; form doesn't evolve during design, design evolves during design.

As an artistic development, process art was a reaction to the overly schematized forms of Minimal Art that artists like Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt were making in the 1960s. Later, a younger generation of artists rejected this pre-ordination of instructions, blueprint and designed artworks, often not even made by the artists themselves but sub-contracted out to industrial fabricators. So the solution they came up with, also called “Anti-Form” or Post-Minimalism, was to devise a process or sequencing of actions whose resultant form became the art object. This held true to a couple of Minimalism’s theories about rejecting “composition” and “relational painting,” as they introduced new concepts in terms of shifting the emphasis back to the artist’s hand. (See Eva Hesse.) Robert Morris, who had earlier worked in both Conceptual and Minimal Art, wrote of this new process of making in 1968:

“Disengagement with preconceived enduring forms and orders for things is a positive assertion. It is part of the work's refusal to continue aestheticizing form by dealing with it as a prescribed end.”(2)

Now if you’re a designer you can certainly make “artful” or “intuitive designs.” However, the concept that an end result product might be designed through randomness is anathema to fundamentals of design. And even though that cell phone pictured above is fairly “out there” in its differentiation from all the others at the store, you can bet it was designed to function as a cell. Designers simply don’t monkey about with the odds and ends of electronic circuitry to stumble upon a functioning telephonic device. Like Louis Sullivan said, “Form ever follows function.”

Image: Rawphisticated Cell Phone by Branko Lukić.

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1. Rawsthorn, Alice. “It's A World Of Black Rectangles,” New York Times; Dec. 12, 2010.

2. Morris, Robert. “Anti-Form,” Artforum, 6:8 (April 1968), 34.

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