The Elements in Design: Artists and Designers working with the Elements

Aristotle explained the elements in terms of what we might call sensual qualities: hot, cold, wet and dry. His main thought was that all materials are manifestations of different compositions of the elements. This idea – that the world consists of underlying elements – was fundamental in several ways. It implies that the world is not what it outwardly seems: A stone is not just a stone – it is composed of a mixture of elements which we cannot see. If the world consists of underlying elements, then materials could be transformed by changing their underlying composition.

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Korea’s most successful luxury brand

Whoo (后), the cosmetics brand designed by Mario Gagliardi, is now Korea’s most successful luxury brand, selected by the Seoul Economic Daily in 2017.

Whoo has been Koreas fastest growing brand due to its unique design and strategic brand promise (read more about its creation). The brand exceeded 100 billion Korean Won in annual sales in 2009, 200 billion Won in 2013, 400 billion Won in 2014, 800 billion Won in 2015, and annual sales exceeded 1 trillion Won last year. Whoo’s parent company LG Household & Health Care, part of LG Group, expects the annual sales of Whoo to surge to 1.6 trillion Won (US$ 1,4 billion) in 2017, making it the best-performing Korean luxury brand in history.

Designed at a time when Western cosmetics brands dominated the Asian market with narratives of Paris and New York, the brand was revolutionary in being the first cosmetics series to focus instead on Asian culture and history. Made with premium ingredients including Korean roots and herbs, the brand tells the stories of historic Korean dynasties. The brand was spearheading the new category of ‘K-beauty’. Whoo also actively supports the preservation and maintenance of historic Korean cultural monuments.

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Super. Sneakers.

Original published on May 5, 2006.

The super-heroes in X-men are mutants, humans whose genetic codes have been altered by unknown means to add capabilities of warfare. One can produce lightning, another one kills people with a laser gaze, one can read thoughts, and one has retractable metal blades inserted in his hands. All of them, just as the super-hero iconography demands, have tight body-suits showing their athletic, or, if they are women, Playboy-mag standard bodies.

The super-human is the iconic ideal for ourselves, an image always near enough to create a subconscious striving and always far enough to render that striving vain. The super-human is living in constant warfare, there must always be an evil opponent, there is always the world to be saved.

The whole narrative, retold in millions of variations, depends on an evil opponent. Without opponent, there is no narrative, and the whole reason for a super-human existence would cease to exist. It is thus in the vital interest of super-humans to have evil opponents at their disposal – if there are none, new ones have to be created.

Super-humans need super-“gear”. There are super-bikes, super-cars, super-planes and super-suits; The super-man Superman wears his own “S” brand printed on his suit, Batman’s logo is projected onto the clouds of the nightly sky. The super-human is branded and depending on his tools and outfit – Superman, in “real” life a mediocre middle-class guy, becomes super only with his suit on and his glasses off.

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And surely enough there is super-gear available to bring every mediocre middle-class person a bit closer to super-human status. It doesn´t quite make you fly like Superman, but it makes you nearly fly like Superman; it doesn’t quite make you jump and swing like Spiderman, but it makes you nearly jump and swing like Spiderman. And you don´t even have to know the secret headquarters of the various super-hero organisations. You can obtain this super-gear easily from the shopping center nearby, just go to the sneaker store.

Sneakers are named and designed to eliminate the last particle of the idea that they would in fact be shoes. Sneakers are not shoes. They are bikes (Hi Tec Enduro), airplanes (Nike Air Streak Spectrum Plus), drugs (Brooks Adrenaline GTS, Brooks Trance NXG), web browsers (Saucony Grid Web), space ships and outer space weapons (Mizuna Wave Spacer, Merrell Exotech, Adidas Supernova Control).

Sneakers are not shoes and they are not for walking. They are filled with gels, hexa-something structures, springs, artificial bones and acupuncture devices. They are super-gear for warfare in any terrain – in fact warfare with any terrain. If it is the rap warfare in the South Bronx, the fashion warfare in Manhattan, the warfare with suburban asphalt or the countryside terrain, the sneaker is designed to make you victorious.

In this narrative, the sneaker is the super-gear, the terrain is the evil opponent, and you are (nearly) the super-hero. As you are just nearly there, you don’t get your own super-hero brand, but at least you can obtain the magical might of the branded super-gear – now for only 299,90.

An object called “Supernova” cannot possibly look like a shoe. The plain surface of leather is historically loaded with the idea of a shoe. Thus the surface consists of fragmented patchworks of differently colored and structured derivates of the oil industry such as Nylon and PVC. Iconography has completely taken over the product: The sole is designed as if there are springs attached at the bottom of the shoe, creating the impression that you could move by jumping, the sneaker being a comic-strip version of an iconic symbol: Hermes’ winged shoe.

Sneaker designs, with their abundance of symbolic decoration pretending to have a technical reason, are the mannerisms of the post-industrial society. Super-gear production must be a mystery, an alchemistic-technological process supervised by shrewd designers and scientists in futuristic headquarters. Sneakers are supposed to be bionic extensions, genetically engineered for the constant super-human warfare of the 21st century.

We buy SUVs pretending to master every terrain, but we drive them on perfectly paved higways to our gated community. We wear sneakers which look like the outfit of super-heroes and super-athletes, but what we actually do in them is to walk around in air-conditioned shopping centers.

Mozart, globalized

moziThe “Mozartkugel”, a prototypical Austrian confectionery, is known for most as a souvenir after a vacation in Austria. The winning combination of an innovative, delicious product with a sticky name was not the work of a multinational branding firm, but of an ambitious confisier in the Habsburg empire. The product most people get in airport duty free shops these days is however neither original nor handmade, but an exemplar of mergers and acquisitions.

The “Real Mozartkugel” by “Mirabell” is a product in a portfolio including “Miracle Whip” and “Macaroni & Cheese”, owned by Kraft foods – previously owned by Philip Morris, the cigarette company which changed its name to “Altria” and spun out Kraft to its own (Philip Morris a.k.a. Altria) shareholders after having merged it with Nabisco (makers of Oreo and Ritz cookies) and General Foods (of Jell-O fame, a company they acquired in 1926 when still operating as “Postum Cereal” before acquiring General Foods and its name in 1929). In 1993, Kraft-General Foods acquired Jacobs Suchard, itself a merger of German coffee company Jacobs with Interfood, which itself was a merger of Swiss chocolate manufactureres Tobler and Suchard.

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But fortunately, and amazingly, there is still the original Mozartkugel, made just as it was made back then in 1890. The original has survived both the industrialization of sweets and the vicious acquisitions of the 20th century out of a simple reason – the creator, Paul Fuerst, cared more for making delicious sweets than for securing the names for his creations. Therefore there have been no mergers and acquisitions of this familiy-run Cafe-Konditorei, and the original Mozartkugel is still produced according to the original recipe. It is handmade from fresh ingredients, delicious, and perishable. It is a bit hard to get, unless you pass by in one of the 4 outlets of Confectionery Fuerst in the city of Salzburg, where it was originally invented in 1890 by Paul Fuerst, an accomplished confectioner in the Habsburg empire who learned his trade in Budapest, Paris and Nice.

Tunkvorgang

(Not original, but very good and handmade Mozartkugeln are available from three other confectioners in the area – Petrik and Engljaehringer in Salzburg and Dallmann in St. Gilgen.)

 

Innovation, anyone?

This post was originally published on December 27, 2009. Since then quite a bit happened; Nokia’s phones, for instance, disappeared.


The buzzword of the decade: Innovation.

It seems that the more the average corporate manager found how easy it is to brush up any uninspired Powerpoint presentation with the fancy word “innovation”, the less innovation actually happened.

In the absence of ideas, the motto of the decade was: Make it big, and make it again. In the media industry, the motto was reruns, sequels, and sequels of sequels. In the automotive industry, the size of the average American car increased proportionally with the average debt of households.

The beginning 21st century was also the time of relative standstill in the electronics sector. The mobile phone boom, the growth engine for electronics companies in the early 2000s, is over, and electronics companies are struggling to find out what to do next.

The “Supersize Me” tactic was also the only idea for television sets. Of course, the tactic to offer ever-larger TV screens is naturally coming to an end as TVs are approaching sizes larger than the average apartment.

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The innovator in the mobile phone market was not a mobile phone company, but a computer company. The simple idea of the overall market leader, Nokia, is to make a lot of different models. While Nokia presumably does this in an attempt to fine-slice a saturated market, the iPhone comes as one model. (For more about the perils of thin-spreading see my 2007 article in Danish Designers; For more about Apple strategies, see my post “From Walkman to Ipod”). In the third quarter of 2009, Apple made significantly more profit from its single phone model (1,6 billion US) than Nokia from its entire range of 20+ models (1,1 billion US). Nokia’s large market share in developing economies seems in the meanwhile to be more of an inertia effect. The mass tactic fails in advanced markets: Nokia’s market share in the North American smart phone market is a negligible 3,9%. Apple’s has 29,5%, and Research in Motion, the maker of BlackBerry, has 51%.

Yet, actual innovation happened. Instead of big and a lot, it was rather smart and light, brought about by outsiders and unlikely candidates. The movie industry, trying to reduce risk by investing primarily in reruns and sequels, opened a horizon for a handful of independent filmmakers with actual ideas.

The only car in the North American market where demand outstripped supply was the exact opposite of chunky and gas-guzzling: The Honda Prius.

In the computer market, the innovator was the lesser known Taiwanese manufacturer Asus, who stood out with its introduction of the ieee, turning upside down the idea that small and light must be more expensive than big and heavy. Since then, nearly all manufacturers rushed to catch up with similar models based on Intel’s Atom processor. The moral of the story: The future won’t be about big, a lot, and the same all over again.

Designer Jargon

The main communication tools for designers are drawings, sketches and models. The style of designer drawings and prototypes can be described as the “jargon” of designers – the drawing style can reflect the assumptions and desires of designers.

The use of jargon is significant for the degree of adaptation of people into an organisational culture; It binds specific groups together and creates a boundary of language to other groups. The style of designer drawings can be soft or aggressive, light or dark, reduced or full of patterns, geometric or dominated by artistic strokes; Different design departments and design consultancies mostly have their own style which contributes to their shared assumptions.

The essence of design drawings are – to an extent – understood across national cultures. However, the interpretation of their value and meaning is culture-specific and depending on individual designer’s knowledge, beliefs and paradigms.

A designer will see the concept or interesting features behind a the sketch of another designer, while a non-designer might have troubles deciphering the message in a design sketch.

Nigel Cross states that the use of sketches, drawings and other models constitutes a coherent and symbolic media system for thinking and communicating in design. Designers see the features and problems in a design and improve it in hermeneutic and dialectic “sketch discussions”, where one sketch is complementing another.

The result of this constant refining and reconsidering is finally presented to management in a “polished” form, a drawing or model which defines every detail of the design drawing. Designers with experience develop a “design eye” and see features of a design a non-designer would not see.

This is perhaps similar to scientists or other specialists who develop a common understanding of their field; They might not share worldviews and opinions, but they share a particular knowledge, which enables them to collaborate on a project despite being different personalities from different cultures and backgrounds.

Krippendorff describes that vocabulary creates “structure within textual matter that is based on selectively (re)cognizing similarities in the compositions or usages of artifacts: (re)combinable and (de)composable forms, components or assemblages, much like words, and syntactic structures”.

The understanding between designers is indeed relatively homogenous across firms and cultures. The change of a design can be discussed in a similar way with designers from Latvia, Germany, the United States or South Korea – the nessecary fore-understanding was established by education and experience.

The drawing or mock-up as the main communication tool is complemented by a visually orientated, spoken language which is used during the design process. The spoken language used between designers is mostly a result of other forms of visual representation. Depending on the discipline, it will involve colours (“this colour creates too much contrast, tone it down”), shapes (“the curve here should be smoother, this would also make it easier for tooling”), composition (“the detail here is too dominant, it would distract the attention of the user from the main button”) or, in media design, the choreography of actions (the movement here in front should be shorter and smoother to reduce loading time on the internet, while the element in the background should slowly disappear by reducing the hue”).

This language is predominantly visual, aesthetic, and often also simultaneously focused on the user (ergonomics, usability) or technical solutions. This “language of design” used in the design process is relatively universal. However, this does not apply to the assumptions behind the concept of a design object, which are depending on world-views and cultures.

The aesthetic value of colours, shapes and compositions are perceived differently in different cultures, a colour or shape one designer finds aesthetically pleasing will be perceived as uninteresting by another. This disparity is, on the one hand, enhanced between different regional cultures with different aesthetic preferences, and on the other hand equalized by “dominating designs”, i.e. designs which are supposed to be right, are conceived by role-models (famous designers) or are dispersed by a dominating culture.