Why design doesn’t need to perform

The design of a minesweeper reignited the age-old controversy in the Dutch community between hardcore functionalists and those with a more progressive approach, generating a fertile debate on design’s potential and the requirements of a suitable education.

This article was published on Domus 970 / June 2013

Drop a random bombshell on the design world and success is certain. The Dutch theoretician Timo de Rijk experienced the sweet taste of success after the publication of his article in a Dutch newspaper (NRC Handelsblad , February 2013), in which he wiped the floor with the design of a young graduate of Design Academy Eindhoven, and incidentally also wiped the floor with a significant part of the Dutch design world.
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Top: Massoud Hassani’s Mine Kafon, the minesweeper project with which the designer graduated with distinction from Design Academy Eindhoven in 2012, and which is also part of the MoMA design collection. Still in its experimental phase, Mine Kafon opens up new perspectives on how to resolve a serious problem in former war zones. Above: for the 2012 Milan Furniture Fair, mischer’traxler collaborated with Wait and See to exhibit their work and conceptual approach to design. The Balanced installation explored the notion of cause and effect with a display of inspirational materials, experiments and theory presented alongside finished products
The flood of reactions stirred up the age-old controversy between hardcore functionalists and those who feel there’s more to discover in design. The ongoing debate was part of the “What Design Can Do ” conference in Amsterdam (16-17 May 2013), and will most likely continue to arouse the Dutch design community in the near future. What are the underlying issues we are dealing with here?
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The revaluation of craftwork and the celebration of flaws left by the production process, initiated by Hella Jongerius in the early ’90s, has influenced industrial production. Today Jongerius is exploring the human perception of colour. She has developed glazes for Royal Tichelaar Makkum (above: Coloured Vases, series 3) and new colour palettes for industry (Vitra). Photo © Gerrit Schreurs
De Rijk criticised the Mine Kafon, the design with which Massoud Hassani graduated with distinction from Design Academy Eindhoven in 2012. Immediately after, both the national and international media heaped praise on it, and the MoMA in New York purchased one of the prototypes for its prestigious design collection. How much proof of quality does a design need? Nonsense, argues De Rijk. After all, the minesweeper is no good. Its illusion of safety will only cause many casualties if it is deployed in a war zone. That the sculptural object nevertheless attracted so much praise points to a problem that, in his view, affects many Dutch designs: they don’t prove themselves in reality, but more on the platforms of the visual arts. The associate professor at the Delft University of Technology ends his crushing verdict with the conclusion that something is fundamentally wrong with Dutch design education if it allows projects of this sort to pass by uncensored.
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Alicia Ongay-Perez, Inside Out, 2012, objects and video interviews with her mother and neighbours. This graduation project at Design Academy Eindhoven investigates all aspects of design

The gist of many reactions to his piece was that at last somebody had exposed the empty rhetoric surrounding many design products by simply subjecting them to a much-needed reality check. Naturally De Rijk is right. We know for sure, as also the designer knows for sure, that at present the Mine Kafon fails to satisfy all technical and functional requirements. The object is not yet liberating Afghanistan or Iraq from their deadly landmines.

But is that necessary? Must a design satisfy all requirements this early in its development, before it can be shown to the public? De Rijk’s crusade should not go unchallenged. After all, he passes judgement according to the only criterion he embraces—immediate usefulness—dismissing other, more valid criteria to judge a design. Although he admits he is not blind to cultural value, in his reasoning there is just one reality in which design must prove itself: the market reality, which demands that designers solve problems (or the illusion of problems) with well-functioning products.

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Mischer’traxler, The idea of a tree, 2008. The solar-powered machine begins its production process at dawn with the first light. The finished object can then be harvested at sunset
What products survive that examination? Wouldn’t every innovative design end up in the bin if it were assessed too soon according to such a one-dimensional criterion? The first designs by Dutch designers Jurgen Bey, Hella Jongerius, Piet Hein Eek, Bertjan Pot, Maarten Baas, Christien Meindertsma and many others would never have seen the light of day, and their wider social significance would never have reached us. At the time of their conception, the tree-trunk seat (Bey), the technically flawed service (Jongerius) and the furniture made from discarded materials (Piet Hein Eek) threw up images that touched the imagination and performed excellently in the media and in museums. Years later, we see that these very same designers were trend-setters in changing our ideas about consumption, globalisation, locality and industrial mass production versus craft production.
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Alicia Ongay-Perez, Inside Out, 2012, objects and video interviews with her mother and neighbours. This graduation project at Design Academy Eindhoven investigates all aspects of design
What was discreetly recognised and acknowledged in the media and museums in the 1990s has now become generally accepted. Design innovators are seldom found among designers who respond directly to market demand, no matter how useful or relevant their products, as the market is by definition conservative. Innovators are seldom found among designers for whom instant functionality guides the design process. And this is equally true for the currently popular notion of “social relevance”, which is strictly speaking consistent with the old adage of problem-solving functionality. If we may, as we should, trust the designer’s intuitive sense for the (still unconscious) signs of an era and their future consequences, we should not limit his or her imagination by framing the domain of design too tightly.
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Makkink & Bey, EarChair for Prooff, 2009. As well as being comfortable seating, these armchairs can also create partially enclosed spaces for meetings. Jurgen Bey has been exploring the concept of functionality since his early projects in the ’90s

Design and the wider world needs designers who have the courage to look beyond the limits of their profession and what the market or society seem to demand of them. In so doing, they justify the many existing and yet unknown meanings we can attach to the term “function”. For that term denotes as many meanings as there are social urgencies, pragmatic solutions, technical innovations and cultural developments.

Practical use is just one of the many guises that design can assume. Design solves fundamental problems. Design represents how people want to live. Design possesses the power to embellish, facilitate and discipline our behaviour. Design can wave a moralistic finger, design can incorporate critique, and design can represent sheer fun. Design reflects who we are in the here and now, as it represents our age and the social, cultural and technological context in which it is born and functions. Design opens new perspectives on reality. Accordingly, there no longer exists just one “natural” habitat for design products, and certainly no natural habitat for experimental prototypes that may possess an almost autonomous value when they represent future scenarios. It is therefore only right that design today is presented in arenas that until recently were the preserve of the visual arts, arenas that by nature are more open to visionary plans and experiments with meanings, and are able to entice debate at an early stage.

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Massoud Hassani conducted experiments with military experts to identify ways to improve certain aspects of his minesweeper
The diversity of the profession is also reflected in design education. Courses in industrial design, offered by universities and institutes of technology, educate designers to develop anonymous products demanded by the market on the basis of precisely defined requirements. Design schools, such as Design Academy Eindhoven and design departments within art academies such as ArtEZ (Arnhem), Gerrit Rietveld Academy and Sandberg Instituut (Amsterdam), educate designers who are guided less by constraints and are prepared to push back boundaries, trust their intuition, stir the imagination and take a leap into an uncertain future. Here the idea of Homo Ludens is celebrated. Students learn to conduct a combination of artistic and academic research, confront it with a reality made up of so many layers, and translate the outcome into challenging designs. Among the former students of these institutes we find most of the so-called author-designers who have won fame in the international design world.
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Mischer’traxler, rocking bench

The volume of discussion stirred up in the Dutch design community proves foremost how much debate and critical voices are lacking in the design world at present. Just as recognition from the museum world accorded the profession greater standing, it seems evident that the profession can only take itself seriously if a respectable measure of analysis, criticism and formulation of theories takes place. For too long, design has been confined to glossy magazines and the lifestyle sections of newspapers. Of course it is commendable if well-respected theoreticians take a close and critical look at much-praised designs and confront noble intentions with the requirements that the products will ultimately have to satisfy. Those who claim functionality should expect such a reality check.

Those who create nonsensical objects for the market should be prepared to receive harsh comments. And those who take an imaginative leap into the future or challenge the borders of the discipline should meet a critical, but first of all an open mind. Each design deserves to be judged with the inherent criteria that hide in its (potential) function, meaning and expression. There’s a beautiful task for design theorists to uncover and analyse the layers of meaning contained explicitly or implicitly in designs and to anticipate possible future social and cultural spin-offs from experimental and narrative projects. To judge (and work!) according to the limiting criteria “does it work” or “is it socially relevant” is to blind oneself to those meanings. Louise Schouwenberg. Head of the Contextual Design Master’s programme, DAE

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