Shortly after the Government bestowed a long-overdue grant on the Design Museum, I had an interesting transatlantic phone conversation with the museum’s new chairman James Dyson. “I don’t know what it’s like in the US,” he said, “but here the trouble with the word design is that the general public associates it with making things ‘look’ good. Yet at the same time consumers kick faulty products and say ‘who designed this?'”
Persuading the British public that design is as much about function as appearance sounds like an ambitious undertaking for Dyson. But he seems further along than his counterparts in the US. Actually, Dyson has no counterparts in the US.
There is no US government-funded design council, and the closest thing to a purpose-built US design museum is the Cooper-Hewitt. This houses a cornucopia of designed goodies, from dusty knick-knacks to classic contemporary cutlery, inside the New York equivalent of a stately home. The idea of a prominent public figure proselytising the value of good design to the everyman is still faintly laughable. The closest thing to a public spokesperson for design in America is the TV personality Martha Stewart, who entertains the nation with her particular strain of good design as spectator sport, as performed by a wealthy, white, New England housewife with time to iron the sheets.
Nevertheless, the recent spate of mainstream media attention lavished on product design over here shows signs of a possible change of climate. Three products launched last year seem to have acted as a catalyst for a surge of media interest: the VW Beetle, the iMac computer and the Nokia 5100 series of wireless phones. All three have been used by the US media as examples of what is capturing the mythical public imagination. As one Associated Press writer, Deb Reichmann put it, “clean lines are in, hi-tech is in, so is retro anything”.
Which brings us back to Dyson’s point. Does the public – and the press – consider design to be simply a matter of appearance? “Clean lines, hi-tech and retro” seems like an awfully superficial account of the Beetle, iMac and Nokia, but you can see where it came from. All three products are curvaceous, characterful and come in a choice of bright colours, which prompts people to recall the post-war years of colourful plastics and Henry Dreyfuss telephones – one for every member of the family – or the retro-futurist appliances of the Jetsons household (a popular US cartoon series).
Reading a little further into the recent mainstream media coverage of design, however, reveals a sturdier philosophy under investigation. Earlier this month, the network giant ABC devoted an entire 22-minute segment of its popular Nightline programme to the innovative working processes of Ideo, said to be the largest product design consultancy in the world. Rather than focusing on the curvaceous, retro or futurist look of objects turned out by the firm, ABC filmed the Ideo designers and engineers at work on a specific problem: the redesign of the supermarket shopping trolley. Under the eye of the cameras over a period of five days, the Ideo Palo Alto team researched, redesigned and rebuilt the clunky old wire trolley from scratch.
Likewise, a closer analysis of the retro, hi-tech, clean lines of the iMac, Beetle and Nokia phone uncovers a similar focus on process. All three products are less about conveying the status or meaning of the object through their appearances than about improving the user experience.
The iMac is a low-cost, all-in-one, accessible machine, the Beetle is comfortable to drive, and the Nokia phone is lightweight with a relatively simple one-button navigation interface.
These products may be initially appealing because of their colourful, retro look, but they are popular because they have been designed by questioning assumptions and examining without prejudice how people use existing machines in the same category.
Could this be the death knell for the days of product semantics, of form following designer’s whims? Have you noticed how the adjective “designer” has fallen into disuse? I would hesitantly suggest that a new picture is emerging among the media, of design as a useful, research-intensive process of rethinking how people actually use products. “People think of groups like Ideo as designing products,” said the star of the ABC show, Ideo’s David Kelly, to a radio interviewer recently. “The truth of the matter is we’re designing the experience of using the things.” Come to think of it, Kelly is the closest thing the US has to a design statesman.