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Designed for Life

Industrial designers gathered at an elite conference last week to meld their veneration of the new and fashionable with an appreciation for the old and lasting — namely, the necessities for designing a meaningful life.

You’d expect the annual meeting of the Industrial Designers Society of America to feature scores of whizbang new products, hoards of vendors touting CAD/CAM solutions, and scads of design jockeys gung ho for presentations on ergonomics and psychoaesthetics.

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But who knew the Boston gathering would be so, uh, spiritual?

Considering the conference’s theme, “Designing Your Life,” it was easy to see why many presenters at last week’s conference ditched the usual PowerPoint litany of company achievements and focused instead on the personal motives driving their lives and work.

Several of the speakers took the opportunity to demonstrate how their teams tackle design issues posed by lifestyle trends, while others discussed dealing with the fear of failure, coping with the serendipitous events that invariably shape a career, and pondering the legacy they hope to leave behind.

Of course, there were plenty of cool new products too. The selection ranged from hockey skates as comfortable as running shoes, to spice jars with grinders in their lids, to a hybrid laptop computer that translates written meeting notes into digital form. Here are some of the meeting’s highlights.

Out of Africa

M’Rithaa Kamampiu Mugendi, a designer from Kenya, led off the meeting by conceding that Africa faces staggering problems, including the AIDS pandemic and corrupt national governments. “Don’t forget Africa!” he pleaded, pointing out that his homeland represents a vast, untapped resource and market.

“It’s never too late to change the paradigm,” he said, inviting designers to join him and his fellow Africans in building a sustainable environment that avoids the developed world’s mistakes.

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Mugendi said that African nations such as Botswana are already enjoying a high GDP growth rate, and as the winds of change sweep through others, younger leaders are focusing on environmental management and the development of technical training. But change can’t happen, he said, without the pro bono help of First World countries.

Pierre Yves Panis, principal designer for the faucet-design company Moen Inc., introduced one compelling but hard-wrought idea to bolster Africa. Nearly 10 years ago, Panis moved to Zimbabwe as an alternative to serving in the Belgian armed forces. While there, he founded the Design Corp., a small firm that taught craftspeople to make and export well-designed objects from scrap materials.

The project was funded by the French and Belgian governments, and proved that good design could benefit craftspeople by generating larger profits and by enabling their financial independence. But ultimately, Panis was forced to return to Europe when project funding dried up and when he and his family became increasingly concerned about personal safety.

“It was a lesson in humility,” he said of his years in sub-Saharan Africa. “For nine years, my desk was a clipboard. It was a good day if we had a drill, a drill bit, somebody to use the drill, and electricity all at the same time.”

The project also made Panis rethink his Western priorities. “You tend to believe that all will be well if you provide people with jobs,” he said. “But I had to learn to understand African values. I would offer a good, regular job, and nobody would take it because it required long periods away from home. For these people, it was more important to see their families than it was to make money. They valued quality of life over job description.”

While he was saddened to leave, Panis said that the experience taught him not to try and plan life too carefully. “Let serendipity take over,” he suggested. “It’s audacious, but not crazy.”

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The Eco-Challenge

After focusing on the problems of an impoverished continent, the program switched gears to investigate issues developed countries face in dealing with excess consumption.

Conny Bakker, director of a Rotterdam design firm named Info-Eco, said that during the past decade, “Eco-design in Europe has gone from a freak thing to a widely recognized and accepted issue.”

Three forces drive the movement for sustainable resources, she said: market demand, government regulation, and cost and resource efficiency. For example, following the foot-and-mouth scare in Europe, the market for organic food grew 40% in six months.

Even designers like Phillippe Starck got into the act by creating a line of organic food called Good Goods for an upscale French mail-order company.

“Even when the crisis in the meat industry is over,” she said, “the change in consumption patterns will drive the industry.”

Additionally, Bakker introduced the conference to a line of fashionable clothing called Kuyichi (that is, “rainbow”) manufactured in Latin America in decent working conditions and using organically grown cotton and no child labor. Created by one of Europe’s largest fair-trade organizations, Solidaridad, the clothes will sell for a bit more than Levi’s, but they will come with an e-tag and a CD-ROM containing information about the product.

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Even when market demand doesn’t spur innovation, the heavy hand of government often does. Bakker spoke about a European program called Take it Back that compels electronics manufacturers to collect consumer products when they’ve become obsolete. Each year, she said, Europeans produce around 6 million tons of waste containing electric and electronic equipment — everything from mobile phones to computers. That volume is projected to double in the next 12 years.

The WEEE (Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive says that producers have an obligation to finance the recycling and management of that waste — even if it means raising prices. The United States, she said, is the only developed country that doesn’t have a policy on such products.

Concern for cost and resource efficiency has spurred innovative thinking in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. For example, Greenwheels, a car-sharing program in Rotterdam, lets residents “borrow” a car when needed, instead of owning one outright. The program, Bakker said, has been used by some 25,000 people in 7 years and has resulted in 22,000 fewer cars on the road.

Bakker also touted Swedish designer Jan Dranger, who created a well-made inflatable couch that uses 83% less resources than an upholstered version and that takes up 10% less space to transport and warehouse. It’s available through IKEA, and is inexpensive, durable, and environmentally sound.

Under Construction: Your Life

Jens Bernsen, a principal at the Danish firm Bernsen Design Strategy, suggested that participants take a moment to ponder the conference theme by asking themselves a series of questions: If your PC were to crash, what data would you most want to retrieve? If your house were burning down and you had two minutes to get out, what would you save? If you learned you had a terminal illness, what would you do with your remaining time?

In the end, he said, life is about choices. And when it comes to design, the big question is, “What do we choose to design?” Bernsen urged his colleagues to design products that are not just possible, but useful.

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Pointing to the invention of the typewriter and the PC, Bernsen noted that product design can change history and predicted that biotechnology will be the primary force shaping the coming century.

Communications design consultant Ralph Caplan suggested that good design, made for a specific client, can achieve universality. Padded vegetable peelers, originally designed for arthritic hands, have been a boon for all home cooks. Likewise, the “serenity prayer” designed by Alcoholics Anonymous has similar universality, even for teetotalers. “The serenity prayer tells us that designing your life doesn’t mean it always comes out the way you planned,” he said. “You control what you can and try to allow for forces beyond your control.”

Caplan concluded by quoting the playwright William Saroyan: “It takes a lot of rehearsing for a man to be himself.” You keep at it until you get it right, Caplan said. “When it comes to your life, there’s no such thing as design. There’s only redesign.”

Linda Tischler (ltischler@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company managing editor of new media.

Read more: “10 Prize-Winning Products”

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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