Designs that Seem VS Designs That Are
Ok, maybe we jumped the gun a little there. This discussion needs quite a bit more setup than that. Let's go back to what Mr. Mari was saying. Here's the original description of his speech regarding seeming verses being:
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 verses 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.
Remember that he made a point not to put a good/bad value on proper verses non-proper design. Instead, he believed that proper design was in relatively low demand, whereas non-proper design -- design which only seemed -- was in much greater demand by the general public.
It was in this last concept that we got our spark. Yes, designs which seem may be popular, and are therefore an option for keeping your business or income going. And they gain popularity easily with consumers. After all, they "seem" lots of things: effective, important, affordable, useful, even necessary.
The archtypical product that seems is an infomercial gadget like the 6-in-1 Whiskula. Sure, it's probably a pretty good spatula, and, as the commercial shows, it obviously has multiple uses, but that's not what makes it so great for TV. What really makes this design sell like crazy is that, while it really doesn't solve any huge problems, it tells a really good story, so it seems like it's solving all kinds of problems.
For an example of a proper design -- one that Is -- we return to the body burning problem. Currently, India is faced with a number of conditions which are building to form a big dilemma.
First, it's population is enormous, and growing. Secondly, Hindus, the dominant religious group, traditionally have cremations for their dead. Third, The level of technological sophistication of India's crematoriums is limited; Many, if not most cremations in rural areas are performed in the open air using wood fuel. All of this contributes to polluted rivers, reduced air quality, and deforestation problems. Why can't people bring their dead to funeral homes for cremation? Because rural areas in India aren't usually financially or technically capable of building permanent crematoriums, and residents don't want these structures (and their health and aesthetic troubles) near their homes
It is this huge problem that E. Sivaramakrishnan, an Indian businessman and inventor, has tackled. He has developed a portable crematorium which is powered by LPG (liquefied petroleum gas, which is like butane or propane), and which can be car towed to reach rural areas quickly. But the real breakthrough of this design is that the bodies are burned at 1100 degrees with very even heating and oxygenation, which results in a quicker burn, and less soot and smoke. Besides being convenient, this method costs less: $14 US per cremation, verses $23 for an electric cremation, and $27 for wood. Sivaramakrishnan even included a web camera on the device so that absent family members can participate remotely.
Contrast that level of work to address a real problem, to a trend that's been building in the US for the past 5 or so years. Call it DIY, call it the "Pull of the Power Tools", but people in the developed world are being buried under a mountain of "designed to Seem" tools.
In John Thackara's latest book "In The Bubble", he points out that:
"The average consumer power tool is used for ten minutes in it's entire life -- but it takes hundreds of times it's own weight [in materials and energy] to manufacture such an object."
And yet, designers and design companies have seized on power tools as the new cash cow of the DIY movement. First, the ergonomic revolution in tools. Then cordless technology kept the replacement cycle turning. Even now, analysts project a 3.8% increase to over $15 million dollars annually in the US alone. In order to keep this market turnover strong, designers are working to hit new markets of users, like the under-represented female market.
This is the danger of design that Seems. It seems so new, or personalized, or functional, that we loose track of the bigger issue. Beautiful, rubber-coated, smaller sized tools seem like they are better than your current set of tools. Suburban housing seems safer and healthier than the city. Automotive transportation seems more convenient than public transit. But the truth is, most of these could go either way. What decides it is how much these designs really "Are"; How much they address the big issues. When we loose track of those, then problems like creating high embodied energy short life tools, and social infrastructures which require unhealthy lifestyles to support them sneak into our designs.
The truth is, designs that Seem will get you things. Money, promotions, top billing in business journals everywhere. But they won't solve the big problems. And that's OK. There probably aren't enough big problems out there for the umpteen million designers in the world today, and there definitely aren't enough designers interested in tackling them. But for those of you who do want to help the big problems, you've got to bite the bullet. Designs that Are don't come easy, and they can be hard sells, but when they work, they are the force that moves humanity forward.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team