When Useful meets Futile
[Opening] [diid 46-47_10]
Long before the idea of modernity as we know it today, the Vitruvian categories of firmitas, utilitas and venustas affirmed a basic architectural and cultural principle that compared the constructive stability of a building with its usability and, last but not least, its beauty.
Modernity then made these characteristics its own, asserting a form of ethical minimalism free from every kind of easy, useless decoration, which reaffirmed the principle of the constructive sincerity of technology and materials. This was far removed from any temptation of superficial camouflage and was also based on ‘correct’ aesthetics that rationally explained its functional reason, limited to what was useful and to human needs. Modern design emerged in this sense as design for the society of the future and was therefore ethically ambitious in proposing organised solutions to the centuries-old problems that have afflicted humanity. The category of modernity is thus to be found in the 20th century, positivist idea of the redeeming and political function of design and science, which alone would be able to create a model of society though radical changes in the physical and material landscape.
Le tante crisi che abbiamo attraversato e attraversiamo – ambientale, sociale, politica, locale/globale, tecnologica, economica – incrinano l’idea lineare di futuro e altrettanto raccontano un mondo plurale fatto di tante razionalità in cui è difficile avere una risposta ‘valida’ e facilmente esportabile nelle tante e diverse realtà che ci si trova a confrontare. In un mondo che si è fatto più piccolo, la dimensione culturale e simbolica continua a disegnare un panorama materiale in cui è più difficile delineare i confini tra utile e futile come voleva la razionalità vitruviana.
The many crises that we have experienced and continue to experience – environmental, social, political, local/global, technological and economic – disrupt the linear idea of the future and also speak of a plural world made up of a large number of rationalities in which it is difficult to find a ‘valid’ answer that is easily exportable to the many different realities we face. In a world that has become smaller, the cultural and symbolic dimension continues to outline a material landscape in which is it more difficult to establish the boundaries between what is useful and what is futile, as in Vitruvian rationality. The myths of transparency and reduction alone, like those of function and technique, are no longer enough to explain what is behind the future. However, at the same time, they have become part of the ‘substance’ of a society which, conversely – in a moment in which there is widespread crisis in the propulsive function of design and a much-lamented lack of future – is reawakening to the continuing need for design to deal with the many challenges, old and new, that it has to tackle.
The very ethical function of design thus has to face a new era of political and social commitment to respond to the many emergencies – or even urgencies – generated by changing living conditions. The exponential increase of artefacts and symbols leads to the question of ecological and also semiotic pollution. The numerous social, economic and cultural differences continue to globally widen an already existing gap in society.
Scientific and technological progress outline prospects in which all time frame becomes obsolescence and man seems destined to merely play the role of an external variable. The motives behind production and, inevitably, the market often prove to be far removed from people’s lives and needs. Talking about the relationship between utility and futility is a way to discuss some of the questions that design (and thus so-called ‘design culture’) is faced with. Therefore, we decided to discuss it through a ‘virtual’ round table.
L. Imbesi – Useful and futile seem conceptually opposing categories, which recall pairs that are difficult to reconcile, such as necessary and unnecessary, primary and accessory, necessary and luxury, or need and desire.
Yet changes in society and behaviour have completely redesigned the boundaries through time and across places – what is valid and necessary today and in a specific place is not so forever and everywhere. Likewise, design involves human and material resources, as well as technological and social innovation and is thus not indifferent to such transformations. Is it possible to map the boundaries between what is useful and futile for design and, at the same time, to define its roles in some way? What is the significance attached to those binary terms within design?
G. Crampton Smith – I’m taking the Italian antonym: useful/frivolous rather than useful/pointless.
Futile is a false friend: a word that looks the same in two languages but signifies something different. My dictionary defines futile in Italian as frivolous, whereas the English use futile to mean pointless, homeless – as in a futile attempt. Frivolous in the protestant north has a censorious ring, whereas useful is clearly a good thing. But as Maslow defined in his hierarchy of needs, what we need, can afford, or desire, depends on what we have. If we have all the useful basics we feel we need, then we have the luxury of looking for other, aesthetic qualities in the things we make or buy. The first pleasure is in a useful artefact: I remember our delight in my family’s first refrigerator. Now I take refrigeration for granted and when I choose I balance cost, beauty and convenience in use (which has its own aesthetic pleasure).
S. Boeri – The symbolic dimension has long become dominant in the sphere of design. It is an awkward presence that has once more brought concepts like futility, context, utility and the superfluous into discussion.
Today many spaces and objects designed by a specific designer cannot be reduced to a simple opposition based on a principle of mechanistic functionality. Invisible yet conditioning and implicit yet potent effects that a complex utensil or a piece of architecture may have on the psychology of the individual and on the collective imagination deserve just as much attention as performance that can be measured simply in terms of mechanical efficiency in meeting need for functionality.
B. Sterling – I think I can answer this question with an anecdote. I faced the difficult matter of changing apartments recently. Naturally I have never been keen to fill my house with things that are ‘futile.’ But nevertheless my apartment was magically full of futile things. How did their futility arise? Some were made futile by entropy. They simply grew old, shattered, flaked, rotted and broke. Some were futile by accident: they might have been useful, but small but vital components had gone missing. Others became futile through technical obsolescence: for instance, perfectly functional landline phones. Some were painfully out-of-style, because society had changed: clothing, artworks, popular music… Then the last category was things that had once been useful but became futile because I myself had changed. So I conclude that ‘useful’ and ‘futile’ are not binary terms. They are temporal terms.
S. Marzano – I also think that today it is very difficult to draw distinct boundaries by generalising about what is useful and futile. In fact, I think that not only these qualities, but also lots of others mentioned in the question, are no longer distinct opposites, but co-exist in a fluid, indivisible whole. Utility and futility exist not in an object (intended in the broadest possible sense here) but in the perception of those who evaluate it. Like beauty existing only in the eye of the beholder. There is no universal, shared ethic of reference from which to draw a definite guideline that does not require debate and dialogue and does not leave certain perplexities about the conclusions.
I therefore think we need to simplify the complexity we face by starting with a part rather than the whole. I mean looking at a specific case, through understanding people’s social, economic and cultural context of use, which are as specific and definable as possible, to find the ethic of reference, the reasons and measures for defining and judging what is specifically, yet always relatively, ‘useful and futile’. The sum of all the individual ‘useful’ and ‘futiles’ that make up the global map of these quality. This is a fluid map, magma in continual movement that does not allow us to fix a unique image or a final form.
C. Guellerin – I do not think that we can define the trivial and functional by relating them to design. Anything that makes sense is functional. And, in essence, the designer’s intention is just that: to ‘find meaning’ and ‘create meaning’ in our surroundings.
In an ever-booming world coupled with merging cultures that make us question our beliefs, we crave meaning, values and identity all the way into our ‘blenders.’ There is a kind of ‘pantheistic’ movement in this increasingly systematic approach to design, an approach that could offset the doubts of our very own spirituality.
The trivial and functional pit themselves against the notion that we have of them: God is functional for those who believe, he is trivial for those who do not… But who would dare say that he is useless? To say that he serves no purpose would be unthinkable.
L. Imbesi – The recent collapse of financial systems that has undermined not only markets and international stock exchanges, but has impacted on people’s lifestyles and daily habits has, as a consequence, also reopened the debate on issues such as decrease, sobriety and self control, redefining somehow the measure of production and its limits in advanced capitalist systems. ‘Crisis’ seems the keyword of our times. To this end, is it still possible to find a ‘moralising’ role for design?
S. Marzano – Change, crisis, change … this is a constant cycle in life. It’s as if these were phases in the driving force of transformation, of what we call ‘civilisation’.
Hypothesis, experiment, success — hypothesis, experiment failure, represent the sequences of daily progress, of the micro-changes and micro-crises that present a cumulative outcome only in the long term.
From the outcome to the ‘moral’ of what has occurred! Design is an expression of vision, intention, opinion, ethics and political position and always has its own moral and meaning. The question we should ask regards designers: do we as designers still have enough hope and desire to play a part in a design culture that is capable of being an expression of life in terms of humanity’s higher values? Are we educating future designers to discover and value the sense of design as a political act, as a guide and as a civil service, to the same degree that we educate them in professional technical knowledge? Are we clear about the difference that exists between designing for the ‘wants’ or for the ‘needs’ of society? G. Crampton Smith – The designer can suggest, but in the end it is the client who decides what to produce. However, designers are able to demonstrate how we might change what we value and, instead of defining ourselves and finding pleasure in the objects we own, to take our satisfaction from the qualities of the experiences we buy. The service design consultancy Live|Work in London was founded with this aim – to promote service envy.
B. Sterling – I’ve seen societies in real crises, and there’s not a lot of moralizing going on in such societies. Life contracts to a tight 24-hour period in which people avidly manoeuvre to get basic food and shelter.
Life is commonly like this for poor people; in a financial crisis, more people behave as poor people commonly behave.
Here in the Balkans – I happen to be writing this in Belgrade – one sometimes hears the extremely cruel remark that ‘war produces a much better class of prostitute.’ That’s the confrontational language of genuine crisis: ugly realism. People do not forget that prostitution is immoral, even during the crisis.
It’s just that rampant immorality becomes a new normality. Adversity reveals the hidden character of people. It’s easy to aspire to morality, but harder to keep it when it is being violently stripped away.
C. Guellerin – Crisis, which crisis? Designers should benefit from such a context. Likewise, the opportunities offered to companies by ‘sustainable development’ and by the green economy are about to trigger a new era as far as development is concerned. To move ahead, companies must reshape the economy – create, produce, sell, manage differently – and make social matters into key issues. Designers have the duty to think up new products, new packaging, new spaces and new multimedia tools… Because they know how to anticipate upcoming scenarios, designers have conquered strategic positions within companies. Since designers are dedicated to creation and innovation, the methods they abide by are neither fundamentally scientific nor fundamentally economic, wherein they remain free from the abusive determinist spirit of production-and/ or market-induced logics that keep many companies at a standstill.
Designers are craftsmen in the service of development within companies willing to go beyond their traditional cultural background. As engineers were the key players in innovation and technological advancement, as ‘marketers’ in sales development and economic activities, designers conduct key research activities into major human and user-centred social and economic issues. Reflecting upon innovation implies keeping an expert eye on technology, economy and human sciences and thereby designers broaden the scope of value creation, thus bringing ethics back into it. Since human beings seen as users are the core of the designer’s approach to creation, designers have the duty to promote a type of economic development that works in the service of mankind. Their action is essential in reviving virtuous entrepreneurship models and in producing wealth with a view to progress for all.
S. Boeri – Today there are three large forms of worldwide organisation of production in the field of complex utensils. The first produces objects of high symbolic value and low serial diffusion: this is typical of markets in mature countries and feeds on the communicative or media-related value that company brands and designers give to the utensil. The second, which has gradually moved to developing countries (like China, India and Brazil, etc.) from the first world, involves mass produced objects with a low or modest added value from a symbolic point of view. The third, which has a high symbolic value, involves the users of complex objects in their own production; it is design linked to artisan practices, self-organised by consumers-producers, who often use design as an instrument of subsistence or even survival. What makes these three forms of organising work extraordinarily important is that today all of them tend to be copresent in our cities-world.
L. Imbesi – In the late sixties, Victor Papanek warned about the extensive social and moral responsibilities designers had towards a much wider audience than just their clients: workers, families, the local economy, the entire territory, related economic activities and, of course, the consumer himself. In fact, design has always been caught between business and sales needs and the public, which is somehow involved, often even against its will. Is it still possible to find a ‘healthy’ balance between these opposites in some recent experience of contemporary design, or has something perhaps now broken down, in favour of a self-referential form of business? To this end, could you provide me with some telling examples?
B. Sterling – Well, I’m not a designer; I’m an author. But I’m always hearing this argument in my own line of work: that one needs to write for more than just the publisher or the bookseller. One has to address the working class, the family structure, the nature of the economy, of one has to write the Great National Novel of whatever one nation is at hand.
I am frankly suspicious of advice of this kind. For instance, some of the best and longest-lasting forms of writing have been diaries and personal testimonies. This is writing that the writer does strictly for himself.
The writer dies, time passes, and somehow, the diary becomes universal and of keen interest to a much wider audience. If a diarist writes for the widest possible audience, then he’s not a diarist at all. Sometimes this is called ‘universality in particularity’.
C. Guellerin – Capitalism does not feed on the moral or immoral. It is the system in itself that has no morals. Nevertheless, we are obligated to recognise that it would be dangerous to renounce this exchange system.
Whether we like it or not, the societies based on a free market economy have generated more freedom for mankind than those based on a more totalitarian approach.
Therefore, what is the rightful place of design? The stakes are fantastic.
No designer should ever forget that each product, each piece of packaging and each image has been created to serve mankind. He should never lose sight of the fact that he is there to further progress, comfort and happiness. The aim of design should never be to generate profit. This would be a perversion in itself. The objectives of a designer should not be confused with those of the company employing him.
By placing mankind at the heart of their strivings, the designer is responsible for replacing economic-driven reasoning with humanitarian reasoning. Thus profit only becomes a means and the designer develops into the key person in an ‘eathical company’. The designer has the responsibility of replacing the economy at the service of human beings.
S. Boeri – I have long thought that the value of social cohesion in Italian post-war design (for example the Brianza carpenters, international creatives and progressive Milanese bourgeoisie) should be updated and applied to today’s conditions of consumption and production organisation. A few years ago in Turin I was responsible, together with the municipal council, for a project called Geodesign, thanks to which 40 groups with shared interests or professions (young Moroccan street vendors, bowls-playing pensioners, Erasmus students, council house tenants and the LGBT community, etc.) expressed the need for a complex utensil and discussed its production (including building a prototype) with 40 international designers and 40 Northern Italian small and medium sized enterprises. The most interesting effect of this project is that some of these communities became businesses, producing and selling the products created by these inter-social workshops.
G. Crampton Smith – We find out about design primarily in two ways: what we see in the shops and what we read in the magazines. And like all mainstream journalism, the new, the different, the extreme, is what makes news. I sense a new mood among young designers, responding to the broader needs of society, seeing design as more than the production of artefacts driven by the market of the rich world. John Thackara, in his role as journalist, has been gathering examples of such initiatives (www.doorsofperception.com).
There is a realisation too, that a different, but huge, market is emerging in the developing world, the bottom of the pyramid, where design, severely constrained by what can be afforded by the poor, can bring innovation also to the rich world.
S. Marzano – Yes, it is possible to find solutions able to create value for a group of ‘stakeholders’. It can be done by returning to the real meaning of ‘enterprise’ and the real aim of ‘enterprise’: the creation of ‘value’ in society. Profit also plays a part in this. Here are two examples.
1. Philips Health Care Ambient Experience: this is a solution based on the use of light and on the projection of hypnotic narratives that help reduce agitation and anxiety in patients undergoing diagnostic tests in radiology, cardiology and oncology units. This solution reduces the need to sedate patients by 40%, helping create a less traumatic experience for patients and a more reassuring one for patient family members. It considerably increases tests carried out successfully without the need to repeat them, increasing productivity in hospital units and reducing costs per test. It increases hospital staff satisfaction and the quality of images needed by specialists, increasing diagnostic accuracy.
2. Chulha: is a project created in partnership with NGOs, microcredit agencies and local residents in rural areas of India. It solves the problem of eliminating fumes produced by wood burning stoves used in domestic cooking and eliminates the risk of respiratory diseases. Chulha was designed by Philips Design in partnership with NGOs. Moulds for its production are simple and can also be made by non-specialised personnel.
The finished product is made using simple materials and technologies (concrete and plaster). Small local entrepreneurs, supported by micro credit agencies, create the moulds and are responsible for production and distribution. Philips has donated the design to the NGOs.
L. Imbesi – The most popular public image of design is connected to the superficial ‘patina’ of objects, a haze that often transcends the use of objects themselves, making them almost a totemic presence and a signal of the decline of our latest phase of capitalism. It is no coincidence that many designers now belonging to the ‘star system’ concentrate on producing unique pieces, which can then be accommodated only in museums or even millionaire art fairs and auctions. Can we now ascertain the disappearance of the modernist utopia of a truly democratic design for all, which also has an educational function, as well as the moral rectitude that holds function (which is close to the Vitruvian memory of ‘utilitas’) to be the primary requirement for shaping aesthetics? Or else, are we living in a new phase that requires new and further analytic categories, all to be constructed beyond the old dichotomies?
G. Crampton Smith – It depends who is the client and what is the market; if a client, or a designer, thinks he has a market for one-offs this doesn’t seem to me to be a problem. These forms will probably influence the mass market in one way or another, much as haute couture influences the high street or architectural competition entries designed as provocations influence the direction of architecture in the long run. I don’t think it means the end of design for all, but is rather a parallel strand. Artefacts have many roles: in some utilitas must not be sacrificed to venustas in others it may be the primary role. The criteria for success for the design of an aeroplane cockpit are different from that for designing a dress.
B. Sterling _ I have great respect for ‘patina’. Patina is powerful and profound. I believe that objects when studied with care will reveal themselves to be frozen social relationships. For instance, an object created for a modernist utopia of truly democratic design will eventually reveal itself to be a product of the Charles and Ray Eames workshop.
Then it will be sold at an absurd star-system mark-up, even though it should logically cost less than some Ikea toy in a box.
C. Guellerin – Should design be addressed as if it were unique? There are designs, and, most likely because design is a reflection of essentially unique creation, there are just as many designs as there are designers.
Wanting to compare celebrity design with ‘democratic design’ is a deadend route, just like if we were to ask the question, yet again, of whether or not the designer is an artist. We need celebrity designers as well as those who look for alternatives to building the world in which we care to live.
S. Marzano – We need to analyse in a very detailed way what is created under the label of design. The creation of unique pieces can be artistic expression, self-celebration on the part of a designer or a cultural provocation to reflect on the state of design. We are undoubtedly experiencing a new, less dogmatic phase in design. Designer, whoever they are, have made a democratic right of design their own, in the sense of freedom of expression and thought that also mirrors the multi-cultural society in which will live, with its complex, changing, contradictory and non-linear behaviour. Whoever evaluates a designer’s work plays an equally important part in the design. They determine its value! We therefore undoubtedly need to cultivate a more sophisticated, profound and widespread critical and analytical ability.
L. Imbesi – Throughout the twentieth century, design was a tool to outline positive visions and scenarios for the future, even to formalise perhaps Utopian ideas for a society in which economic and social inequality and conflicts could be resolved; particularly the great design ideals that coloured the avant-gardes, combining images and ideas. Have we now lost any hope of Modernity and, at the same time, that design can no longer be used as a tool to observe and build our world, or is it still possible to find an expectation of change and hope?
G. Crampton Smith – By definition the role of the designer is one of hope.
Herbert Simon defined design as ‘courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’; it would be difficult to imagine a designer attempting to change an existing situation into a worse one.
The difference today may be that we, more than the designers of the past, realize that the world is complicated and that the effect of what we design is not always as we imagine. Neil Postman once said ‘if we knew then what we know now about the effects of the automobile we might not have embraced it so wholeheartedly’. The designer of today must not only concentrate on the artefact but its broader effect, be it social, ecological, economic. Teaching interaction design we push students designing digital applications to consider not just how they might function practically but also the effect they might have on social behaviour. Similarly Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby at the Royal College of Art use design to explore how new technological artefacts – digital or biological – might change not just our practical way of life but our values: value fictions instead of science fictions.
The life of the average person in Western Europe or the USA has been transformed in the past century: refrigeration, central heating, the automobile, the aeroplane, the tractor and other kinds of agricultural machinery, the typewriter, the computer, wireless, television.
B. Sterling – I just visited Brasilia. That city is a mid-century Modernist avant-garde utopia, and many of the buildings are discoloured, graffitistained and crumbling. Nevertheless there are profound expectations of change and hope on Brasilia. For all its troubles, Brazil is a young, forward-looking, energetic society.
People who have ‘lost the hope of Modernity’ could fly to Brazil, look around and fly home again. They would find that there is plenty of hope in modernity, as long as it’s not ‘Modernity’ as someone’s American grandmother or European grandfather defined it.
S. Boeri – Design is still a fundamental condition of good policy. Policy that defends an ethic of responsibility (and not only action) and that must therefore plan its choices over long-term social and territorial scenarios and verify them on the basis of the possible foreseeable effects that each choice may provoke. The planning dimension is today the biggest and most striking element missing from public policy. C. Guellerin – For the past ten years, design schools have fundamentally changed their teaching curricula. We have gotten away from technical design and its segmentation, such as product, interior and graphic design, in an effort to become schools of complex project management, bringing together engineers, marketers, philosophers, sociologists and artists, etc.
It is about having them work together on projects whose ultimate goal is to produce progress.
L’Ecole de Design Nantes Atlantique, like other design schools across the globe, has created Masters programs in fields such as ‘New Mobility’, ‘Social Innovation’, ‘New Eating Habits’ and ‘Design for All.’ I do not believe we have lost sight of our dreams … far from it.
S. Marzano – Without a shadow of a doubt design and vision are still important acts for continuing to be the protagonists of the future.
Whoever gives up the initiative of expressing their own thoughts and their own utopia has given up on being a protagonist of change and a protagonist of the future.
He or she is thus content with a role as a spectator or a passive critic that passively puts up with the future and who is satisfied with or complains about what will be.
The future belongs to those who imagine it, who build it and who challenge it. There’s only one answer to the question: the choice is ours!
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diid disegno industriale | industrial design Book Series analyzes the evolution and the results of research and both theoretical and planning experimentation in the field of design. Each issue developes a theme that is representative of the debate which crosses the phenomenology of the product system in a technical and cultural extension. Researchers, scholars and professionals of the national and international scene are called to compose a multi-voice tale, with different points of view. They compose the diid Study Center. The selection of articles provides for review and evaluation by a Committee of Referee (double blind peer-review). Proposed contributions should be original and relevant in relation to the themes traced.