Plato: Jim, do you think the end of the world will come at nighttime? Jim: Mm, no. At dawn.
James Dean and Sal Mineo in “Rebels Without A Cause”, 1955
It is a chilly late morning this spring in Berlin. Fitting to the temperature, a skier runs skis made from cardboard in a circular groove on a metal plate, around and around. Running in circles. The exhibit, called “Your personal career” is telling for a view of design as it was on display at the Designmai 2006 design show in Berlin.
Most exhibits are made in cardboard or plywood, taped or tacked, early process mock-ups rather than fully developed models. That reflects on the city, fragmented and patched as Berlin has been through history, it reflects on design as a process, on the budget of the exhibitors, and it reflects on a particular situation of contemporary design.
There is a lot of things looking shoestring. Cheap chic started out being cheap while at the same time trying hard not to look cheap, offering a discount entry ticket to contemporary design and fashion for the budget-conscious. Then high street designers turned the recipe around, took on street fashion and offered ripped jeans for Prada price tags. This look subtly balances the look of the Ghetto with the appearance of high street – a high wire act to conform and at the same time to stand out.
There is no high wire act required with tacked and taped cardboard mock-ups, but it is an indulgence as well. There is nearly a Freudian reproach in this, as the designers and design students on show seem to grudgingly ask: what has happend that we are forced to look that bad? That attitude is quite new. It certainly needs a consciousness for a certain design historicity: that before design was all about making things look good, and now times are difficult and we show it.
The “100 Euro Haus” by Students from Kassel aims “to enable those faced with limited funds and possibilities to create their own spatial situation in a meaningful and liveable way”. An honorable goal, but the point was missed. Dwellings created in the actual reality of poverty – Brazilian favelas, for instance, built in extremely difficult situations and often on very steep building grounds – show a handling of resources, space and material which deal a lot better with the realities of living on the edge than the cardboard boxes here, presented with nothing but Scotch tape and a grand promise.
Similarly, the “Nohotel”, a design for temporary installations in vacant buildings, aimed to “transform temporarily any space into an accomodation with comfortable atmosphere”. A great starting point. The result, however, was a bunch of cardboard cut-outs which looked distinctively flimsy and uncomfortable.
Prototyping is an essential part of the design process. Take paper, cardboard, foam, whatever you want, get an idea of your idea, then test, improve, make more prototypes. But cardboard mock-ups – some of which can be quite stunning – are process helpers, not the goal of a design process (unless, of course, the goal is to design in cardboard). The problem here is not that cardboard mock-ups are bad; the problem is that they are presented here with lofty descriptions as if they were actual, working design solutions.
On the positive side, the designers here deal with issues beyond glitzy showrooms, or what Viktor Papanek called “genuine needs” versus “evanescent wants and desires” back in 1971. This is good. The current gloomy economic outlook in Germany might do its part, and with designers getting that feeling that they themselves might be excluded from discourses on economy, power and politics, there is a realization that a new concern for the excluded in general is needed.
That designers deal with questions of transitional living situations and livelihood for the poor is to be emphatically supported. Just how to deal with a question makes all the difference. Design is about a (sometimes rather difficult) reality, but it is also about attempting to make this reality better, to create something meaningful, which in most cases is more than just the obvious.
“Whom is design to serve?” This question reappears in contemporary discussions about design, mostly coming with a gist that it mainly has to be about the benefit of business and industry. Designers shall not make “art pour l ́art”. Partly I do agree with this, and partly I don’t.
Design came into being by industry. So is design without industry crafts? Perhaps. However, to be called crafts it needs a certain degree of craftsmanship. So what is design without industry and without craftsmanship? Perhaps conceptual thinking, perhaps we need to invent a better word for it.
Back to the question of design and its need to benefit industry. First, design and industry are inevitably connected by virtue of both their origins. This lends design a couple of features: That it is about something in the future, that it is about something which deals with a certain goal, and that it should be something which is in some way better or more interesting compared to when this something would not be in existence, although, as we know, that does not hold true all the time.
Historically that meant buildings and tangible products. Only lately we came to realize that this necessarily also implies better services, better structures, better experiences, and better systems, which do not neccesarily need to be tangible, but always perceivable.
At that very point of reflection, when it becomes clear that design is about more than just about tangible products, it also is inevitably about the whole fabric of society and economy. In an interesting reflection of art, business today sometimes seems as much self-centered as art “pour l ́art”, which, as Walter Benjamin called it, with the onset of mechanical reproduction was becoming a “negative theology” denying any social function and categorization.
Design, by contrast, is not business, although it is part of it, and not art, although it is an art. It is about more than serving its own goals. It should point out undesirable futures, but it also needs to envision possible other, more desirable futures, and so it naturally lends itself to be that other, complementary part of business.
That means Ueberzeugungsarbeit, as it is called in German, conviction work. To qualify for that role as the other part of business it needs to persuade with visions for the future. The time lag between present reality and imagined future is both the problem for and the promise of design, and for that end it has got a couple of cards up its sleeve: To simulate complex environments, to test materials and concepts in real-life situations, and to make something imagined and envisioned for the future appear as if it would be already present reality with convincing models and renderings.
These are tools and methods which should be assumed to be relatively universal for design. Alas, in this show, design objectives and design tools have been separated: the material of choice for young designers dealing with social issues was taped cardboard. Design not for industry at the same time was shown as design without its own tools. This achieves an odd effect, as if what the designers show us is consciously designed not to deal with (and possibly improve) social issues. Something just feels to be missing when reality is deplored, but not even attempted to be changed.
This article first appeared in Danish Designers Inform Lounge Edition in 2006.