Sunday, December 7, 2008

Design for the Future

As it has been said many times over the course of this semester, Industrial Design is a diverse and multidimensional field. We all come from different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different aspirations. However, no matter what each of our specific areas of interest are as designers, one thing stands out above all: We are problem-solvers. We live in a world with many problems. These problems can be as subtle as the psychological effect of the color of a new hair dryer on its user, to the growing millions of humans who cannot feed themselves or find safe drinking water sources. It is our great privilege, and great responsibility to have the job of creating solutions.

I have found that throughout my education here at RISD, my views about what problems I wish to solve have changed, and they will likely change in the future. I know that I love to research, to find out about new and innovative solutions, as well as to see how problems have been solved in the past.

One category of design, which I had not thought in depth about until this semester, is humanitarian design. Some of the most serious problems facing mankind are occurring across the globe, and even in our own backyard. As global warming becomes more and more prevalent, we are seeing an increase in natural disasters. Massive hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, and floods have started to affect major populaces, in the developed and developing countries. This has created a strong need for an organized and comprehensive response by those who can help. Up until this point, supplies and aid to these disaster areas has been well-intended, but not well thought out and designed, and I think it is a great opportunity for designers to have a medium in which to find innovative solutions which will have a positive impact on thousands, or even millions in need.

However, the events that cause people to flee their homes and live in fear are far too often not caused by nature. War and violence leads to millions of displaced persons and refugees every year. The same opportunity for innovation and creative solutions lies here. I chose to look into the problem of displaced persons and refugees for my current project in Reactive Matter. This also incorporates into my earlier statement about my love to research and find new ways of thinking about problems. Over this semester, I’ve been exposed to new materials which are being developed which can truly have a great impact on how we live and sustain ourselves as a species. These smart materials can harness the energy of the sun, at a much lower cost and energy consumption then traditional solar panels; they can bend into any shape imaginable and then return to a flat piece of plastic; they can create electrical current from the motion of your steps on the floor; and they can even filter saltwater and even raw sewage into clean, potable water, with minimal energy. It’s been a great opportunity in this project to be able to think of ways to apply these new and exciting technologies to such an extreme problem, and I hope to continue doing so in the future.

I hope that we all can find a niche in which to use the skills and ideas we have collected here at RISD and use them to create real and positive change in our world, and I strongly believe that we as designers can make the change we need.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Two Realms, One World

The separation of “art” and “design” seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Over the past fifty years, the separation of these two ideas has become more and more prominent. Why? Was it the industrial revolution that created a dividing line, by separating mass-production, limited-production, and “craft”? Before the revolution, fine art i.e. painting, sculpture, printing, and design, or invention were intertwined. Da Vinci is a great example of how one could combine fanciful images and ideas with practical and invented objects. However, until very recently, these two realms of the visual world were starting to be torn apart.

I think that this trend is becoming reexamined by many new artists/designers. People are again beginning to blur the line between these two modes of thinking and creating works that fit into both. One person who was addressed in class was Max Lamb. Max has done a number of projects which look at the way we view materials and processes. In one project, Max created a chair made of poured pewter in a sandbox, where he “performed” the creation of the chair in front of an audience.

In some ways, I think this has value, in that it reexamines the context of an object and its relation with its user and that a performance style, which has up until this point been in the realm of art, can be used as a method for connecting with and illustrating the making of a practical object. However, in the same breath, I hesitate to commend this method, because, especially in this case, little thought is given to the impact of materials (pewter is not a great material to be in contact with for long periods of time) and many of the pragmatic issues which are engrained in certain objects, such as ergonomics in a chair, are ignored.

Another interesting example of reexamining the context of art and design which we briefly looked at was the Studio Libertiny Paper Vases.

This series of vases brings to light an interesting juxtaposition of reused materials and conventional craft methods to create an object which retains a "ghost" image of a former physical form within its new form. Other projects from Studio Libertiny, like the honeycomb vase, also address the reexamination of creation and its role in our live and the lives of everything around us.

In this project, the vases are created by placing a basic beeswax mould printed with a honeycomb pattern into a beehive. The bees then do the rest. It takes 40,000 bees a week to make each vase, each of which is completely different. The vases also vary in colour and smell depending on the flowers that are in season. Within the boundaries of a conventional vase design this project defies mass production and enables nature to create what would typically be considered a man-made product.
I think now is an interesting period in which society will begin to rethink the place of design and art in our culture and how both can be blended in a way which can open up new methods of thinking and new, more relevant methods of production and creation.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

System Solution

While volunteering at the A Better World by Design conference, I was exposed to many different perspectives and approaches to solving the big issues which are facing our current generation. One thing, however, which seemed to connect all these different ideas, was the imperative need for us as designers, and human beings, to look at these problems holistically. These problems are often quite complex, and need to be addressed systemically. That is not to say that all solutions need to be complex, or solve all the problems at hand, because that, I am convinced, is impossible. Instead, the point was raised that we need to truly understand all the impacts of our ideas and how they can or cannot be utilized in different ways, and to different degrees.
One workshop which intrigued me in its outlook on the ideas of systemic applications was the solar cooker workshop. Virginio Mendonça & Eric Fedus showed how the solar cooker works. It is a relatively simple idea: you make an area which uses reflective material to focus sunlight onto a focal point, and this area heats up to high enough temperatures to cook food on. Below is an example of a very simple version of the solar cooker:

This version simply utilizes a cardboard with reflective Mylar, along with calculated angles of reflectivity, to heat cooking pots upto 130 degrees Celsius. However, as the two speakers explained, this technology need not be limited to cooking. Utlizing solar energy in this manner can be used to dry foods:

or distill potable water from unsanitary ground water sources:

Virginio and Eric then continued to explain how this technology can then be applied to an even bigger scope of applications, such as microconcentrators, which heat water that can then be used as a medium for heating houses and other spaces:

They also explained how this technology can also be expanded in scale. Many places in India have adopted parabolic solar condensers in large cooking centers. These parabolic solar cookers are used to heat pipes with water in them, turning it into steam. This steam is then used to cook up to 30,000 meals a day.

All of these applications evolved from the same principle. They all solve very different issues, but in a way which can be implemented systemically. It is our opportunity as designers to explore new ways to utilize newly found technologies, but also to re-explore old technologies from a different perspective and find innovative ways to create comprehensive and holistic solutions.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Design for humanity

As occurrences of crises, political, ecological, or socio-economical, around the world and the realities of living in those situations have become more apparent to the world, so has the awareness of the need for humanitarian design. The nature of these crises and the scope of the problems of addressing real and basic human needs are extensive, and up until this point in history the implementation of relief solutions has not been extensively considered. The problems which humanitarian actions address are often extremely complex, and so the design solutions which must be achieved must be heavily weighed and examined. Solutions need to address boundaries of culture, economic hierarchy, and politics, as well as incorporate appropriate design philosophies. Many people, including myself, often find themselves overwhelmed by the problems which our world faces on a daily basis. We question what our role in all of this is and how we can help make a difference. It is daunting, but I believe not impossible, for us as designers to make a positive impact in these crucial issues.

During Dr. Becker’s lecture about his experiences in Africa working in a refugee camp and our discussion about the necessities of disaster relief housing, I found myself thinking what kind of direction I as a western cultured, American design student could follow to help those in need in Africa and other places with different cultures. Justin DeSilva asked whether or not it is possible for us to design beyond cultural and social barriers to create solutions which truly embrace their audience. I believe that it is possible, but that it takes a lot of dedication, diverse knowledge, and research into the situation which those whom you are designing are involved. Also, I think that the scope of the issue is a very important factor. Designing a hand-held product is very different from designing a systemic medical assistance infrastructure, for instance.

There are several examples of how western designers have created design solutions which, in many ways, transcend cultural boundaries as well as provide a very positive solution to the problem. One of the most well known is Vestergaard-Frandsen’s LifeStraw®.

The LifeStraw® is a personal water purification and filtration product which allows users to drink from otherwise disease-ridden water sources. The straw uses three different filtration systems, halogenated resin, anion exchange resin, and granular activated, silver-impregnated, carbon, to filter out diarrhea-causing bacteria, microbes, and viruses. The straw is easy to use and provides economical accessibility to sustainable drinking water sources in places which usually have none. This product has been embraced by many different cultures because of its effectiveness and simple design.

I think that situations of displaced persons from political and/or natural crises are of great importance in the field of humanitarian design. That is why I am currently working on designing refugee camp housing for Darfur, Sudan, and trying to incorporate energy harnessing smart materials, to generate the energy needed for everyday usage and emergency medical care. There are many issues which I need to research and consider, but I am confident that the project will help inform my design perspective and potentially lead to greater impact in the future, through implemenetation

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Designed Meaning

Design is often a veiled part of our society. It is everywhere; it is in the cups we drink out of, in the buildings we live and work in, in the signs that we see, and even in the streets we walk on. The realm of design is almost all-encompassing, and yet, at the same time, is almost nonexistent. In many ways, the design of our world has become ingrained into our social and cultural consciousness, to a point where most people don’t even realize that almost everything that they interact with on a daily basis has, at one point or another, been thought about and considered by another human who wished to bring it to fruition.

There are, of course, many objects, environments, and interactions which most of us view as being “designed.” Many people are drawn to certain products, such as the ipod, BMW, and Wii, to name a few, because of these recognized designed qualities, their “aesthetic meaning.” This meaning is more subjective and personal, and often deals with individual perceptions of beauty or hierarchy. This sense of meaning in design can frequently grow into a deeper, and more socially relevant form of “cultural meaning”, but the two are not always related.

While reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell recently, I became aware of a good example of how aesthetic or personal meaning does not always lead to cultural meaning and, in this case, how sometimes it is the opposite. In his book, Gladwell talks about the development of the Aeron chair, designed by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, and sold by Herman Miller.

Gladwell describes the extraordinary amount of research and development which was used for the design of the chair. Bill Stumpf was chosen to be on the design team because of his expertise in ergonomics and studies into orthopedic and vascular medicine at the University of Wisconsin and the design of the chair incorporates this knowledge heavily. Through careful considerations, the design of the chair departed from the traditional upholstered, by incorporating a stretched, flexible mesh surface, and multiple modular extensions. These elements were tested and incorporated to provide a multifunctional office chair which truly addressed the issues of ergonomics and the physical realities of sitting for extended periods of time. However, when Herman Miller was preparing the chair for production and sale, they made sure to do some consumer testing before releasing the chair into the general public, and what they found in these tests was disheartening. People did not like how it looked. They said that it didn’t look comfortable, and that its form felt unnatural for an office chair. Despite the consumer tests, Herman Miller released the chair in 1994, and it has now become one of the best selling office chairs to date and is collectively held in public view as being a symbol of comfort and style. This is its cultural meaning. However, initially people were opposed to its aesthetic meaning, which I believe can be contributed to the fact that this design was using materials and techniques in a new and innovative way which departed from the cultural perception of office chairs at the time. In their own way, the Aeron Chair and the designers who created it have created a new aesthetic and cultural meaning for office chairs and chair ergonomics.

I believe that the intrinsic meaning and value which we as humans perceive in products and environments is an idea which designers have an opportunity to control in many ways. It is a very important aspect of being a designer to take into account the total reality of a product, environment, or interaction. However, as much as we as designers can do to control the meaning of these things, the end result of “cultural meaning” is something which grows over time, and which is affected by many different and unforeseen factors.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Every time I walk out of a dark building into the bright sunshine, I am reminded of the awesome and overwhelming power of the sun. 386 billion, billion megawatts of energy are released from the sun every second in the form of gamma, ultraviolet, infrared, and visible light rays. What we as humans react to so strongly to about the sun is the vast amount of light. Light envelops us in its embrace. It is, in a way, its own being. I am reminded of how far light has traveled, through the vast, cold emptiness of space, just to reach my eye, and how many other billions of humans have shared the same experience at every moment in history. Light is an element of every religious doctrine and culture; it is an aspect of human existence which we all share. Yet, since it is always there, light is often overlooked and taken for granted. It is this line of thought that brought me to the perspective with which I assembled my light timeline.

Light has been a critical part of human development throughout history. Light from the sun promotes growth and gives energy to the earth; but light also can denote heat and warmth, like in a flame, or affect our moods, providing comfort or influencing emotions, such as the sterility of fluorescent lights. However, light also has a greater potential then just illumination, and throughout history, humans have investigated and utilized light for many different means.

In my light timeline I addressed five ways in which light has been used for purposes other than just pure illumination. One of the earliest known applications of the nature of light was the sundial. To a degree, sundials represent a great monument of human development. The use of sunlight to tell the time represents a level of knowledge and ingenuity which was not achieved until that point. Similarly, the methods of using glass fibers to transmit light, of using light to animate images and entertain us, of using electroluminescent fibers that have been woven into fabrics to create environments and experiences, and of using new materials which convert visible light into electricity all display a level of innovation and forward thinking which did not exist earlier in history.

This examination into humanity’s utilization of light as a means of developing our universal knowledge informed my recent work in advanced studio, which focuses on utilizing smart materials and nanotechnology to solve design problems. Photovoltaic cells, which I examined in my timeline, are in a genre of power generating smart materials which harness sustainable energy sources, such as visible light, pressure, and heat in order to generate electricity. These materials hold an exciting potential as sustainable solutions to our current energy crisis. These technologies are not necessarily new or recent, but for various different reasons, have not been used to their fullest potential. It is exciting and simultaneously overwhelming to contemplate the applications of such compelling materials.

This issue of utilizing materials also relates to my first timeline, which focused on the use of the chisel throughout history. Tools retain a great deal of information about the development of humanity. The development of tools sheds light on intellectual development as well as socio-cultural progression. The more advanced a society, the more it produces, and the more tools it uses. The story isn't one of continual development as there are periods when progress is slow or even goes backwards. My timeline focused on the chisel and its adaptations in different time periods and cultures. Each chisel example I used showcases a development in the use of new materials and making processes to form tools and their resulting creations, starting with the use of stone, and progressing through to the modern use of pneumatics and electricity to power chisel tips in jackhammers. It is interesting comparing these different leaps in material utilization and manufacturing breakthroughs to modern day developments, which seem to be happening at an exponential speed.

In our current world, the separation between the material and the product is beginning to blur. Nanotechnology is pushing this boundary even further as it seeks to manipulate and create with the very fundamental building blocks of life, atoms. At the same time, these developments beg the question, “what is the role of the designer?” I find this interesting, especially in the context of this history of industrial design course, because the nature of industrial design is inherently hard to categorize and its origins hard to isolate. It seems the modern industrial designer has become the jack-of-all trades, attaining information about all the different disciplines and developments and disseminating it into their work. It is interesting as well to consider design through the eyes of science, especially the laws of physics. “All elements in a finite system will move from disorder (organization) to order (equilibrium). A building designed to resist the forces of gravity, weather, and time will eventually be reduced to the elements from which they were first generated. A product which is designed to solve current design problems becomes obsolete in a decade, and sits in a landfill. It seems that designers have a unique role in our modern world in that we have the chance to influence the public’s awareness of many different issues, ranging from cultural differences, to socio-economic discrepancies, and a sustainable future.

I find that combining information from history with information which is just breaking into the human consciousness is extremely valuable. There are so many long held ideas which are taken at their word, without further examination. Distinguishing what ideas and movements have carried through to today because of their merit and what ones have survived only by lack of reexamination seems important to me, and is something which I constantly grapple with. By researching and compiling the timelines for this history of industrial design course, I hope to further this exploration and find more and more references to which I can compare and differentiate from, to develop myself as a designer and world citizen.


Functionalism, as defined by George Marcus, denotes an honesty of object and material in a synthesis of standardized mechanized production and expressive structure. Each group of designers, from the time of William Morris, to the Arts and Craft Movement, and the Bauhaus applied the idea of functionalism to their work, however, the way in which it determined form, style, and production differs tremendously. The development of functionalism also often coincided with manufacturing developments, cultural style perceptions, and social means. In many ways, the development of functionalism can inform us about how truly considering these factors can create designs which transcend time periods and “fads”, but which in other ways can fail to address the emotional and environmental factors which design evokes and should harness.

William Morris began a movement to abandon the ornamenatation which was prevalent in 19th century furniture in favor of simple but refined forms which were more conducive to greater production

The Arts and Crafts Movement, inspired greatly by the writings of John Ruskin, romanticized the pride of the craftsman and the perfection of his handiwork. Charles Ashbee designs upheld this view of the relationship of creator to his work and the social co-operative structure that William Morris espoused

The German Werkbund, which had it’s roots in the Arts and Crafts Movement, and of which Peter Behrens was a member, focused on improving the overall style of German objects and products. They focused functionalism into considering production methods and the ideas of creating affordable, mass produced beautiful objects for the people.

Joseph Hoffmann was co-founderof the German Werkbund. The Sitzmaschine Chair utilized wood bending and laminating processes which were still being developed. These techniques helped to shape the aesthetic and function of the chair, allowing for the reclining system.This design also implores functionalism through inherently expressing the function in it’s form.

The Bauhaus built off of the principles of the Werkbund but focused more heavily on mass-production and material honesty. Mies Van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer both worked with bent steel tubing, a relatively new industrial process to create minimalist forms and underscored van der Rohe’s personal maxim“less is more”. This interpretation of functionalism is the one which seems to have carried into contemporary design consciousness the most, from a formal standpoint as well as a perspective
on the role of design in society