Reality Bites: Product Design

Clive Grinyer examines the work of graduating students from three product design courses at the Royal College of Art.

On the day I visited the Royal College of Art at least three national papers had reviews of the RCA fashion degree show. At the Tube station were posters of bug-eyed automobiles and products. The degree show at London’s Kensington Gore promised a chance to see the future.

The RCA has a new confidence that it’s not just for designers or the in-crowd. It’s reaching out to the public and telling them that design is not just about living room makeovers, but how we organise ourselves, and the stuff around us.

Somehow terms such as vehicle, product or engineering seem too prescriptive to describe the outputs from this year’s RCA students.

The work has so many links across departments that it’s tempting to call for a meltdown between the disciplines to allow designers total freedom to see design as a human opportunity, not a defined set of skills in a certain area. The relevance of design thinking to other activities, in education or business, can be applied across all areas, whether they are graphic communication or product development.

But, running counter to that is the passion and depth of exploration of students working within the framework of a particular vernacular. Automotive design, for example, covers more than just cars. There is also a plane, a glider and a catamaran at the show. What they have in common is the sculpturing of emotions that connect to a heritage formed around mechanical and engineering realities. As course director Dale Harrow puts it, “Automotive designers work within a tradition, there are certain elements you have to have when you design a piece of transportation. You can’t throw out the rule book.” He is not just referring to the need for the things that allow you to move, such as wheels. He’s also talking about an emotional aspect. “There has to be a sense of mobility, it can’t be a plant pot with wheels on it,” he says.

Jeong Hoon Yu’s catamaran is inspired by Bugatti’s cars and mixes traditional marine materials with gorgeous forms, combining emotion with efficiency through the air and water. Romain Lawson’s glider uses the form of a pelican to represent flight, with a blunter alternative to self-conscious aerodynamic sleekness.

For most of the students, the search for character is explored through fluted forms that turn and twist with surprise and end abruptly in your face. It’s all a lot more Auto Union and Buckminster Fuller than Luigi Collani. But there is a lot of questioning of structure and purpose, and a feeling that design is as much beneath the surface as on it. So Christine Kesel’s Rolls Royce uses a new palate shape to create a sense of elegance, but those surfaces are glass and metallic resins, left to work as materials, not just surfaces. Tue Beijer uses rapid prototype processes that “grow” forms, rather than mould them, to create exotic organic shapes for his motorbike. Pierre-Oliver Garcia uses mathematic aerodynamic modelling to create strip-like forms in carbon fibre for his vehicle.

Harrow says there have been changes over the past few years. “Previous generations of students would create designs knowing they would never be made,” he says. Now it is made, by hungry car companies eager to work out what their future offerings might be. The students, a mix of 13 nationalities, are closely linked to industry, with projects from Ford, Renault, Audi, VW and BMW, plus interest from others in Europe and Asia, though not the US. The tradition and rulebook is different over there.

But at times it looks like medieval monks doing calligraphy on religious texts the moment before printing took away their purpose. What is the real future of individual cars and luxury transportation in a contemporary environment?

The students are bracing themselves for change. Their interests are much wider this year, with a greater emphasis on design portfolios that address issues around transportation, not just cars. They work with traditional car brands, but also with new brands. What would a Microsoft or a Nokia transportation system be like? Perhaps it is right to have a discipline of design concerned just with mobility; there are huge questions here. “Everyone knows that the old model of an automotive designer designing cars for the same company for 30 years isn’t there any more,” says Harrow. “They are preparing for a more varied future that could take them into many other areas of design”.

On the design products course the definition of a product is constantly stretched and the edges between static artefact and interactive product are blurring. Hillary French, course head of design products, talks of how students’ interest with the virtual world has stimulated new directions. “A few years ago we would never have had students developing animated graphics as part of their work,” she says. The Internet has become a place of continual dialogue with the outside world, through students’ websites. “There is a sense of public portfolio and continuous examination,” she adds. This cross-fertilisation is visible in the way so many projects come to life, are not just stationary objects, but respond to and interact with you.

Hang your book on Nick Forster’s light to create a natural bookmark, and it turns on when you lift the book off. Gary Allson’s hallway entry shelf turns your lights on as your keys are placed in it. RCA design product has always been ingenious in its use of material and form, following the inspiration of its leader Ron Arad, but now this smartness is applied to an extra dimension of experience and response.

There are still many exquisite and clever experiments in material and form to look at, such as Flavia Silva’s double-sided chair, rubber stool and modular dinner tray or Ed Carpenter’s Bungee Sideboard. There are even magazine rack coat hooks, but forms are beginning to be more expressive than the predominating super cool minimalism, and “furniture” or “product” designs are rarely simply static artefacts.

The barriers of the design products continue to fall, first between furniture and product and now at the other extreme, between object and interface. Last year there was talk of the dissatisfaction of designing ever-thinner packages for liquid crystal displays. Instead of running backwards, to find pre-technology responses to the post-technology world, this year’s students embrace electronics and work with its power to create response and bring objects to life. When we see the power of the Apple iBook LED to induce emotion simply by “breathing” rather than blinking, we see the beginning of the road that many students now explore. It’s a road travelled for years by the RCA computer-related design course, and with ownership of that course moving to Irene McWilliams of Philips Research, the push and pull between virtual and object will be explored even more.

This is the first year where Ron Arad chose the students and the result is surprising for its diversity and relevance to the real world. The strategy of using world-leading designers to teach a wide range of disciplines is very effective. It capitalises on the ability of the RCA to attract both world-class students and practitioners, and excellence is the predictable result.

Last year you could still see the traditional European interest in the artefact, rather than it’s use or relationship to us. This year looks quite different, with a similar sense of experimentation, but with greater relevance to the real issues of current design to understand how we can be the masters of technology. So the work of Christine Posch in developing new gestural interfaces, work that can only be viewed on film, seems absolutely the right thing to be doing now, as is her interactive shop window which reacts to your presence.

Further explorations can be found in Industrial Design Engineering. People often ask why two types of product design should exist in the same institution. It’s not the subject description that’s different; it’s the people. Students on the IDE course are engineers who, through a link with Imperial College and the RCA, study product design. Andrew Samways used his engineering knowledge and a mix of carbon fibre and climbing rope to create a pushchair that packs into a rucksack. Edward Goodwin makes plastic scalpels that burn cleanly when disposed of and are more comfortable to hold than steel versions. Guy Robinson’s crutches are another example of a brilliant combination of materials, ergonomics and the user’s needs.

As they put it, “our products work”. Whether Cajsa Flensburg’s female urinal works or not is irrelevant, she’s combined user observations and an understanding of privacy, comfort and materials to challenge an everyday part of life and come up with an alternative. Just as the design product students experiment and push our ideas of what objects should be, IDE students introduce a humanity into their mechanicalor electrical-based training.

Last year was a happy vision that was at odds with the sculpturing of transparent plastic that seemed to dominate product design. This year the work engages directly with the world of the near future. The students have grasped the nettle of technology rather than rebel against it, and are looking for opportunities to create products that live, move, react and respond.

Clive Grinyer is director of design and innovation at The Design Council

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