catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 7 :: 2007.04.06 — 2007.04.20


The designed object

Part 2 of 3

Brief history of Manufactured Objects

An object comes into reality because of a need—a physical need, a financial need, and aesthetic need, a medical need…the list goes on.  Generally, a need requires analysis and clarification to really understand it, that is if it is not a personal immediate need.  This analysis becomes the design brief—the terms of reference for the design to achieve.  Concepts are produced, models and prototypes made, tested, modifications are made, and then the object’s definition is complete, and it can be manufactured. 

It has always been like this, even in the earliest times.  Think of having to cut wood, or dig a hole—you would get the sense that doing it by hand is not likely the best way to do it, it could be better, and then think about what would make it easier.  For digging a hole, a stone would be better than hands, and that would evolve to a flat stone with a more specific shape, and then as materials evolved, maybe to a metal one, as it can be thinner still, and stronger, and then put a handle on it for longer leverage, you may not know why these changes make improvements, but through trial and error, you find what works and what doesn’t.  With making objects for manufacture, the process is no different, except of course for the increased level of complexity of these simple activities, and the number of people and disciplines involved.

Before the industrial revolution and after the time when we made thing for ourselves, “objects”—tools, furniture, clothing, utensils—all were made locally by local crafts or trades people, etc.  They were the first specialized manufacturing skills.  There was the local carpenter, stone mason, tailor, farmer, blacksmith.  With industrialization began the development of tools to make the objects, the furniture, clothing and utensils, in order to make more of them more efficiently and consistently, thereby giving access to things never before seen, at prices previously unattainable.  

As they continued to evolve, it caused an increase in the complexity of the objects themselves, as well as how they were made, and subsequently an increase in the complexity in the development of objects.  Now, not only did the object have to perform its function, it had also to be made in these mechanized processes in order to be made in the numbers and at the rate required.

This could be seen as the dawn of the profession of Industrial Design.  It used to be that the craftsman was designer, engineer and manufacturer.  With industrialization, a wedge formed between designer/engineer, and manufacturer, and as this evolved to focus efficiencies, the human/emotional component of objects became less a priority, a wedge formed between the designer and engineer.  By the 1920s, consumer products had become generally utilitarian in their character and as an example of the response emerging from retailers,  Macy’s dept store hired Henry Dreyfuss, a theatre set designer, to bring a little character back into their products. 

Role of industrial designer

The role of the industrial designer has evolved and is to give the defined ‘need’ (as defined earlier) form and identity, working within the limits of the context of the object.

The Industrial Designer began by eliminating excess decoration, his real job began when he insisted on dissecting a product, seeing what made it tick, and devising means of making it tick better—then making it look better.  He never forgets that beauty is only skin deep.  For years in our office we have kept before us the concept that what we are working on is going to be ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some way used by people individually or en masse.  If the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the Industrial Designer has failed.  If, on the other hand, people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient—or just plain happier—the designer has succeeded.  He brings to this task a detached analytical point of view.  He consults closely with the manufacturer, the manufacturer’s engineers, production men, and sales staff, keeping in mind whatever peculiar problems the firm may have in the business or industrial world.  He will compromise up to a point but he refuses to budge on design principles he knows to be sound.  Occasionally he may lose a client, but he rarely loses a client’s respect. (from Designing for People, written by Henry Dreyfuss in 1955)

Today, as marketing and sociology has become ever more sophisticated, and our means of measuring and understanding human behavior has grown, industrial design has embraced these activities, to produce more useable, and more relevant objects—although the manufacturing and retailing world has not historically taken the same path.  Product development is happening at unprecedented levels.  Vast numbers of things are being produced to feed the retail appetites, and the Chinese manufacturing capability is able to respond in lightening speed, the goals of industrial design are reduced to differentiation and price points.  Also with the amount of product development, many products have matured.  Unlike in Dreyfuss’ day, when there was much scope, today, how much impact can be made on a toaster?  It can be made cheaper, it can be made to look different for the competitors, it can be made to wear out sooner, all working toward an economic goal, too often to the exclusion of all others.

Companies like Apple, Nike, and even Target, and many more are changing the historical direction of manufacturers and retailers.  They are creating and selling things that have been far more considered, things that are resonating with people, and with our culture.  They have recognized the potential economic rewards of considering their customer much more deeply than before, their objects are rising beyond commodities.  Many of these things do genuinely make our lives better, make us safer, more comfortable and just plain happier—and that is where industrial design succeeds.  These companies are creating products that speak clearly, and I think that is central to why they are succeeding.

So how can we take this and interpret it in the language of the objects speaking to us?


The English language is comprised of certain elements: nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, grammatical structures, etc.  For design the elements are:  form, character, semantics, metaphor; and material, including colour, texture and process.

All forms have character.  Think about it for a moment and I’m sure you can agree.  You may not have always been conscious of it but you are aware.  They are happy, sad, sophisticated, quiet, etc.  Dieter Rams of Braun talks about products having the character of an English butler. He says he doesn’t walk into a room introducing himself by shouting, “Hey, I’m Dieter Rams”, and doesn’t believe products should do it either.  Jerry Hirshberg, a past director of the Nissan design group in San Diego told of the first car they developed, and its first viewing by Japanese directors.  The directors were quite concerned about the cars unhappy ‘face’.  The design team was focusing on elements that made the form appealing to a North American sensibility, fast, or aggressive in its styling—things that work in a North American context.  Forms can look fast or slow, heavy or light, grounded, floating, utilitarian or fanciful.

The Bauhaus architect Mies VandeRohe said that God is in the details.  In most things you look at, you perceive the details, you may not be aware of them, and could likely not even articulate them if you were asked to, but they all add up to complete the picture.  They are like your peripheral vision. 

Early modernists insisted that the form of an object had to suit its function, and that standardized simple forms facilitated the mass production of good quality, durable goods at an affordable price, thus contributing to social reform. This of course is open to much debate, but I believe there is significant truth in this statement, and warrants further discussion.

The Morrison Kettle shown in the Participation portion of this presentation is a good example of a rigorous application of simple and clear form language, attention to detail and a strong, reserved form not shouting its presence, but clear and effective in its function.

Semantics is what the object is telling you it will do for you, and how should you interact with it.  A light switch for example—switch up for on and down for off; that’s all it does, and it communicates it clearly.  Door hardware is another good example—plates on doors are for pushing, and bars are for pulling (for the most part!).  VCR’s are a classic example of poor semantics; they even give people an inferiority complex, thinking that they are somehow inadequate because they can’t use their VCR’s properly. 

Bruce Mau says in his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth in point No. 19: “Work the metaphor.  Every object has the capacity to stand for something other than what is apparent. Work on what it stands for.”  That’s for designers, but as a user it is something to look for.  Metaphor is used to build a link between something new and unfamiliar with something familiar and conventional.  It adds to make an object accessible and more likely to be useful over a longer period of time.  Another use of metaphor is for visual effect, pure and simple—the Womb chair designed by Eero Saarinen is a soft form, enveloping and inviting.

Materials are elements of an object’s language as well.  Polished metal surfaces are intended to last, resist breaking and rusting.  Plastics have been engineered to perform a staggering array of functions, and their ‘feel’ suggests what they do.   I have a camera that is ‘ruggedized’;  the essential difference between it and a ‘standard’ camera is in the material it is made form—it is ABS not polycarbonate.  ABS is far more impact resistant, and as soon as you pick it up, it does not feel fragile, simply by virtue of the material. 

Designers often speak of an honest use of materials.  There is a lot of debate here, but generally when considering a purist view of design, honest is best.  Interestingly for sustainability, new composite materials may in fact be better with regard to sustainability but may not reveal to the viewer an honest impression of what it is.  This is in part due to the previous point on metaphor; for us to embrace something new, it often has to connect to something known first.  These new materials are introducing new textures and colours, and it will take time for them to enter the mainstream.

Imitation wood vs. real wood as a surface finish is another interesting debate.  Fake laminate wood is, in a sense lying to you; it’s saying it’s wood, but it’s not.  Although interestingly, the fake wood may be more durable, more impact resistant, use less raw material and more recycled material than real wood. But is still not real, it won’t patina or ‘live’ as real wood does.  Wood veneer is curious because it is wood, but only truly on the surface—what is below is engineered wood, particle board, of MDF…so is it lying to you, or not?  And is it right or wrong?  In one sense it is lying to you, but in another it is an efficient, and responsible way of making a large panel of wood, using waste material, maximizing yield, and minimizing waste. The debate can go on and on at this point; suffice to say that what a material is, tells you something about the product, and its intent.

Process is yet another element of the language—how the material was used.  Was it cast, moulded, formed, or extruded, these things tell you about how it was made.  Were there a lot of them made, was it highly tooled, very consistent, or were only a few made, each one a little different from the other?  How are the connections made?  Finished products so often live or die at connections.  Consider closing the door of a BMW, and then compare that to a Toyota corolla.  Are the gaps between things consistent, were they glued together, or fastened in a way that can be separated. These elements can tell you about the sustainable aspects of the object—how easy will it be to recycle?

The language of an object can be very complex, and at the same time very intuitive.  We are emotional and we like things or we don’t.  My hope is that with increased understanding of this language, our like for this or that will slowly become more attuned to a clear and sustainable product language.

<— Next:  Part 3 of 3 —> 

your comments

comments powered by Disqus