The shape of the future

Janice Kirkpatrick looks at the forms of expression entering the language of design – vocabulary both engendered by, and helping to shape, new styles

Do linguists investigate how we communicate through sports cars and soap powder? Do product designers understand how we speak to each other through form? Do graphic designers enjoy philosophical investigations? Do they care?

They should.

The Fiat Barchetta and the new Tamburini-designed MV Agusta motorcycle have “diamond cut” lines. A sharp new addition to our grammar of form that heralds yet another addition to the designers’ endlessly expanding universe of product characteristics. It’s the new language of complexity where multi-faceted geometries fragment and uniform at the same time. Three-dimensional objects endlessly mutate as you move around them, changing shape like crystals reflecting light which is at once delineated yet undefined.

I welcome the idea of form which is unspecific, chaotic and nervously fettled. I’m fed up with that “classic” thing which basks in its self satisfaction: static white spaces, predictable symmetries and endlessly repeated compositions which tiresomely hark back to the ancient Greeks and their bloody Acropolis.

If automotive designers have taken their formal cues from the supposedly rational sciences which delivered to us the Stealth Bomber, then it’s a remarkably similar game to that which the Modernists played when they made houses look like ocean liners. With the exception that Stealth is simultaneously visible and invisible and perhaps the purest representation of flying death which one is likely to encounter if unfortunate enough to have it cast a shadow on your settlement.

However, if designers are instead taking their cues from the polygon structures of Playstation’s humanoid street fighters then we have an interesting phenomenon on our hands – one where the virtual precedes the real. Designers have been hugely influenced (though they might not care to admit it) by their choice of software and the clever tricks it performs. Remember those first graphic designer adventures in the world of Mac and how you could spot the software a mile away? It was the expression of “platform over form”.

Have you noticed how many new buildings look like 3D models in a bad paste-up? Architects are the worst offenders of “platform over form”, trailing way behind the graphic designers because their software is more complicated than QuarkXPress. It’s strange to consider that office buildings are often detailed according to the nuance of the software, rather than the characteristics of materials and how they might be joined. The trouble with architecture is that you can’t run out a colour proof then make some quick changes before the job goes to press. It’s build or bust in a job where every building is a prototype.

Maybe the automotive designers haven’t created anything new, maybe they’ve just found the same CAD software as the military and the computer games junkies. Come to think of it, they’re probably the same people anyway. Even so, I look forward to a radar-invisible motorcycle, a useful little addition to the studio forecourt.

Just as new materials inevitably give us new products, more style gives us more ways of expressing the personality of a product which, in turn, has a better chance of finding a meaningful place in our lives. More style with which to describe tomorrow and keep today’s world contemporary.

Some of these new shapes are borne of brands which have been honed and perfected over time. They are the product of analysis and distillation. Many others have been carelessly hewn between dusk and dawn with little thought given to how they might add or detract from the language as a whole.

It’s therefore comforting to know we can now enjoy bath time fun without fear of electrocution as Nintendo manufactures Game Boy Bubble Bath under licence. The soapy liquid is packaged within the familiar shape of a Game Boy console, but you squeeze a rubber button to squirt coloured rings around a water-filled mini-console. Forget platonic solids and the grammar of classical architecture, our object world has grown so complex, our vocabulary has expanded so swiftly and so massively that we are in danger of misunderstanding ourselves and leading our clients and their customers up the garden path – we now have spheres, cubes, pyramids and Game Boy shapes.

Right now, the future is an asymmetric polygon with sharp folds and deep drawn lines. Can’t wait till Alessi does the toaster.

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