The Professor Opines on “When Design Matters”

[somewhere out there, but not in this galaxy, The Professor is not only professing but predicting as well]

[somewhere out there, The Professor is not only professing the lessons of design but also zeroing-in on what the future of the design profession might encompass]

NOTE: The following article contains the first usage of the term “designer-hackers” that The Professor is aware of—a phrase that since The Professor first used it [see point 03 below] has become far more common in the creative community.

In the Autumn of 1990, The Professor was wrestling with a hard fact of family life. His brother had joined the Army months earlier and had since been to Iraq as part of the first American military incursions. It was a source of stress for The Professor. There he was studying under the palm trees and cycling everyday in the year-round temperate weather of graduate school at Stanford while his younger brother—the kid who signed-up for service to straighten out his jagged-up life as much as to be a soldier—was on the front line in a warring and factionalized Muslim country. It was a bad time to be almost anywhere in the Middle East, but being in Iraq was probably the epicenter.
To counter his what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here-at-Stanford feelings, The Professor left the Design Loft—the studio shared by the grad students who were undertaking their Thesis projects—and turned to drawing and painting; he practically became a resident at the school’s printmaking studio. He painted on copies of the Stanford Daily newspaper; all taken from the same date, and all with the same boldfaced headline “US DECLARES WAR.” The Professor—essentially unschooled as a painter—began to render camouflage, map imagery, targets and explosion-like patterns atop first page after first page of the paper. The Professor also learned to do monotype prints, and once he had the press technique dialed in, he experimented using photocopied images from newspapers, spray paint, tempera, acrylic paint, and dry pastels in various combinations.
The Professor also started to seriously wonder what “design” was good for—what it would take for design not simply to succeed but to matter in a broader sense: to be more of a cultural force for societal progress than a recipe for business success. Originally, this took the form of a screed, a cry in his darkest darkness to justify what he was doing.What resulted was three pages of MacWord bullet-points that focused on when design matters, now but especially in the future; this became a more developed and formal document “When Design Matters” that he soon shared with frog’s founder Hartmut Esslinger. Hartmut was excited by the fresh thinking and found that it meshed in several specific ways with thoughts that he had previously had. Serendipitously, Hartmut was asked soon thereafter to speak by the Netherlands-based lighting company Lumiance. The first lecture was entirely Hartmut’s and he devoted it to detailing the meaning[s] of frog’s already-famous credo [at least in the industrial design community] of “Form Follows Emotion.” The second lecture, and the one to which The Professor contributed greatly, was the “Vision” section about where the profession [and culture] of design was going [or ought to be going]. It was opinionated and unlike any other design lectures or conferences of the time that The Professor was aware of; subsequently it was printed in a 48-page limited-run of 1500 copies, spiral-bound.

[the cover of the lumiance lecture book of 1992, courtesy hartmut esslinger]

[the cover of the 48-page lumiance lecture book of 1992, courtesy hartmut esslinger]

Herewith the Vision segment from the Lumiance publication.
01. When Design matters
it requires designers who are idealistic, good, life-enhancing and morally responsible citizens of the world. It means living consciously, eating healthily, keeping the body fit, and the spirit free, it means being modest in personal life. It means no more booze, drugs, smoking or cutting of old-growth forest. All [of] these things cost too many animals, too much water, energy and health, and they are even aesthetically wrong.
02. When Design matters
it is grounded in the individual mix of personal life, passions, experiences, competencies and hobbies. It mandates that we personally develop a stronger sense of our unique personality, rediscovering ourselves as we were born, taking out the wrong stuff in our education, like being forced to continue the lives of our parents and grandparents or being conditioned as easy-to-abuse law-abiding citizens. We have to discover and keep what is our task in life and conjoin this to a deeper knowledge of our shared design history. That is the reason I started to teach and why I want to empower our vocation beyond its current drifting as a profession.
03. When Design matters
it means more designers who are “Designer-Hackers” that work outside of the dominant paradigm to create true creative alternatives. Their goal: to actively call into question the capitalistic system of supply and demand. And fear of failure. And lack of excellence. They brandish the laissez-faire syndrome of accelerated obsolescence.
04. When Design matters
it is a radical proposal for an “ecology of designer’s minds.” It means knowing more about our world than any group of designers could ever know [before]. It refuses to accept media extensions as creative amputations, but it [in return] means that designers must accept the “data explosion” in order to find the “fundamental information” that connects our ideas of who and what we are. Designers will always [henceforth] be students in the mode of learning.
05. When Design matters
it uses Non-Design, Un-Design, Anti-Design, De-Design, Re-design, and Dis-Design as examples of how the willfully eccentric can be tremendously meaningful, of how the familiar can be made strange and wonderful again, and of how there is nothing in the world that we can [any longer] call “primitive” or “foreign” because everything is connected to us through as myriad of larger official and smaller, guerrilla-like systems.
06. When Design matters
it implies the transformation into a tribal affair that encourages each subculture to find its own stories and symbols as the moral basis of manufacturing. This is not new to us and far more pressing in today’s climate of political change. Actually, the new Europe can only be built when design can balance the non-efficiency of supranational political bodies.
07. When Design matters
it teaches us to look not just for the object by itself, but for the pattern that connects. It refuses to accept efficiency as a preeminent goal of human relations. Design cultivates discovery and and technology, but recognizes that they are always the result of specific agendas from particular economic and political context.
08. When Design matters
it recognizes “mastery,” best represented by the ancient Japanese culture, but also recognizes the genetic codes of design: fragments, samples [in the rap music sense of the word], spectacles, references and allusions. The genetic code of design creates a continuity with history. And working in a decentralized, or centerless way, we repeat loops that contemporary media culture offers us as raw materials.
09. When Design matters
it means re-examining the tools we use, the manufacturing methods we employ, their long-term effects, the role of progress, and our replacement of nature with entertainment and technology. It makes us take responsibility for our actions and for our images, products and buildings.
10. When Design matters
it is a way of telling stories that need to be told: of increasing opportunities for people to improve their products through customization and post-market product alteration, and by treating as a ‘wonderful game,’ which it so often is. Some of my favorite products are racing bicycles; they are a wonderful example for this thesis: the classic Tour de France bike still has a timeless beauty, but the time-trial and the triathalon [bikes] have reinvigorated both the concept of the bike and its semantic expression.
11. When Design matters
it is diverse, hybrid and polyethnic instead of typical and monocultural and the true global product is not the [lowest] common denominator but the pinpoint expression of the right meaning.
12. When Design matters
it means products and identities will become softer in shape and harder in conceptual focus. When we touch, tactility will be enhanced by smart multiple materials. Products will become figuratively and literally more transparent, selectively revealing the apparatus of their construction, the mechanism within, and therefore be in closer contact and communication with the user.
13. When Design matters
it will provide new avenues by extreme niche manufacturing in the direction of mutant and personal manufacturing which may culminate in being able to have our own design variations produced in front of us, just as a desktop printer produces graphic art. The designer will then have to create more of a design language which can be spoken by everybody rather than seclude himself into the ivory tower of exclusivity.
14. When Design matters
it works against mindless consumption by questioning the object-as-commodity. It refuses to accept that our self-worth should be based on purchasing and purchasing power. It continually addresses issues such as awareness, meaning and place which are central to contemporary society [through intelligence, intuition and sharing].
15. When Design matters
it suggests a preservation movement for products, akin to that which took place in architecture, offering the option of reconfiguring our business and consumer products. Imagine an original stereo from BRAUN with state-of-the-art digital signal processing audio, or an original Macintosh 512K computer with the latest super computer in RISC parallel processing.
16. When Design mattters
it shows that information overload gives way to a higher level of pattern recognition. It includes design strategies such as getting it wrong just right, misinterpreting things on purpose, and “seeking distraction as a way of keeping focus.” It implies adding so much value to products that they can no longer be carelessly discarded,designing things so that after the first use, they can be used again and ultimately are capable of being broken down into recyclable components.
17. When Design matters
it recognizes that designing in today’s hyper-real, post-credible environment is quite different from the modern design heyday of a half-century ago. Our daily events are “media-driven,” “televisionary,” and “advertising-saturated,” and we know that there is no “original” possible in our always-synthesized digital media. The new design strategies that seek to make sense of these developments must necessarily endorse the tension-provoking blur between what we consider “real” and what we consider “artificial;” true or false, wanted or rejected… At times, the [design] results will be ironic, paradoxical and ambiguous. At other times, they will mean a revolution.
18. When Design matters
it makes innovation a human [value] from the start instead of allowing new technology to be cranked through mindless conservatism and creative nihilism. For example, neural networks will completely decentralize information and individualize information systems: they will enable us to use electronic appliances just the way that we think. Neural chips everywhere will enable artificial light to flow us like a personal aura. They will make individual traffic less aggressive and better flowing and they will tell robots by themselves how they are to be produced and assembled.
19. When Design matters
it encourages us to draw on every area of human endeavor as a creative source from Florence to fractals, from stock cars to stock markets, from Beethoven to Beat, from chaos to cyberspace, and from folklore to [science] fiction.

Not all of these 19 proposals have yet reached fruition or found expression in the greatly expanded field of design of 2014 but the essential rightness of their key points rings true even today, and that’s why they call me, and continue to call me, The Professor.

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