Enzo Mari : Projects vs Designs
First of all, there is one thing traveling to Milan (more on that later this week) taught us: Italian is much less like Spanish than you might think. Sure, it's fairly straightforward to understand the gist of the conversation, but the particulars can kind of get you. Enzo gave his talk in Italian, with an interpreter, who, while very good, seemed like he mixed around some words during the translation. So, since all the following will be in English, we ask Mr. Mari's forgiveness for any horrible butcherings.
And with that, let's get down to business. For those of you who've never heard of the guy, Enzo Mari is an unbelievably prolific Italian designer. He works primarily in consumer products for the kitchen and home, although he has created everything from puzzles to dining room tables in his 48 years as a designer.
He started out his talk with a statement: "I don't know what design is." This was his style throughout the lecture; He spoke in concentrated statements, as though he had already done the work of explanation earlier in his life, and he was just delivering the final truth to us, the lucky listeners.
He explained that, though he didn't know what design was, he could begin to define it. After drawing the following diagram (his whole presentation was given on a standard chalkboard video-taped and projected onto a projector screen behind the stage. All his graphics were generated live.)
He showed first a point on the right of the screen. Then, a series of arrows traveling toward that point. "The point is a perfect solution. Quality. A perfect design. Some efforts make it this far, and some make it only this far, and some make it to here." And he drew the corresponding arrows. "This is what people think design is like." He said, referring to the straight paths, "But in reality, this is what design is:" And he drew the squiggle in the lower left hand corner.
His point was that design quality is a constantly moving target, defined by culture, history, fashion, science, technology, and social forces. He said, with great emphasis, "I was lucky to never go to school. In school, you either have students learning the trade of design -- drawing, pattern making, measuring -- or you have students being 'taught how to think'." He called this "Teaching methodology in an obscene way"; It disgusts him to see design reduced to a series of steps which, if followed will result in a superior product, regardless of the problem statement.
Rather than subscribe to this idea of design, when he is working on a project, he asks himself "What is this work" for each design separately. At this point, he admitted that he didn't like to use the word "design" because it carried the connotation of some methodology which is the same for every problem. Instead, he talks about "projects" which need newly discovered methods every time -- "What is this work?" Then he drew this diagram of all the forces acting on each project:
There are infinitely many arrows here. In his words "Science, and philosophy are a succession of narrowing. Publicity is a succession of broadening. Quality projects should be about narrowing. No's versus Yes's" Deciding with each project which of these infinitely many arrows you will incorporate into your design.
"Some people say design is technology. But technology is just a tool like a screwdriver. If design is a screwdriver, is a city just a long list of screwdrivers? Some people say that design is marketing, because after all, we must sell things to stay alive. But this is only one facet of the project. Some people say that design is defined by the needs of users. But are they the user's real present needs, imagined needs, or maybe needs yet unidentified by users?
A good project comes from seeing all the arrows, understanding as many of the arrows as you can, but understanding them well, so that you may choose which ones will best serve your work. Then he drew this diagram of the way science works, showing that scientists focus further and further from the large circle of scientific understanding, to one slice, to a slice of the slice, etc.
This is, he said, the "Thick design" that the lecture series is about. He went on to describe the cave paintings of Bison at Lascaux, France; How these paintings must have been done entirely without the aid of light, and in a horribly enclosed space, and thousands of feet into a frightening cave. Why did they do these works? Because they really believed in them. Bison was such an important part of their lives, and they must have practiced intensely. First, tracing the bison in the air with a finger, before the kill. Then back at the camp, practicing it in the dirt by the hearth for days, until you were ready to record it permanently in a room where is would hardly even be seen, because of the lack of light. This is a thick design.
In his mind, there are proper, and improper projects. Not that either is "good or bad". But they are different degrees of thickness. Improper projects are done using an existing model. You want to make a sturdy table, there are hundreds of designs, some of them hundreds of years old, which you can copy. But your will only have one layer of thickness: Sturdiness. Proper design, on the other hand, begins where there is no model to copy. It is "painting on a moonless night, in a room with no windows, with a blindfold on." Why do we try for the proper designs? We do this when "what's around us makes us want to strangle the designer".
He referred to proper designs as designs that "are" versus improper designs which only "seem". In his final chart, he showed described the numbers of proper versus improper designs in the world, and predictably, there are few proper designs, and many improper ones. But that's alright, he says, because that's the way consumption goes as well.
All in all, this was a total mind-blower of a talk. As much as we've written here, there's no way we could encapsulate all the ideas, gestures, jokes, and outright screaming. We were pleased to see his acknowledge that design is a response to myriad forces. We're dedicated to bringing you information about all those forces, so that you're designs can be as thick as you want them to be. So next time you're working on a project, think about what this work really is. Think about how your design can be, rather than seem to be.
Not the easiest thing, of course, but it's good to get the encouragement.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team