Design is both widely under-appreciated and misunderstood.
The most common misconception about design is that it’s an aesthetic endeavour. Drawing, decorating and colouring in. Making things look nice. This way of thinking has lead to many landfills worth of products that are visually enticing, but lack other fundamental features – like being useful. An example is Phillipe Starck’s stylish Juicy Salif citrus squeezer. It’s widely agreed, by just about everyone, that it doesn’t work very well. Yet instead of ridiculing the thing as an expensive dud, it’s been accepted as a design icon because it looks nice.
This kind of clever but ineffective product has strengthened the misconception that design is about appearance. If you put a bird on it it’s instantly ‘creative’ and ‘designer’. Small wonder then, that design is under-appreciated when most people don’t understand what it is.
While there is an aesthetic element, design is also about experience, meeting needs and achieving a purpose: form and function. If a citrus squeezer can’t help you squeeze a bit of fruit, is it a good design? Would you buy a winter coat with on-trend ‘cold shoulder’ cutaways? I suggest the answer to both questions is ‘no’.
Almost always, a designer will be trying to meet a need while working within constraints. These might be physical, temporal, budgetary or simply traditional. Part of the designers' role is to understand processes in order produce something that works, within these constraints. Budget is a common one: materials, manufacturing and production techniques can be chosen to meet a consumers budget constraint. This creates an affordable product. User experience design deals with creating meaningful and navigable experiences, where constraints might be temporal, perceptual or financial. Good UX and communication design enables people to use complex systems like smartphones and public transport systems with minimal training.
Looking at another ridiculous and overpriced juicer, we can see that the concept of constraints is also under-appreciated and misunderstood. Here’s a product which takes a sky’s-the-limit approach. The machine is breathtakingly over-engineered by celeb designer Yves Behar's studio. Each component is custom made, using high spec materials and complex techniques. It incorporates elaborate features of dubious practicality (it has wifi‽). It claims to solve a problem (after use cleaning), but creates a whole new set of problems by generating waste materials that require proper disposal – “not recyclable by municipal methods are the Packs themselves“. In fact, in order to avoid the waste problem, Juicero needs you to empty and clean its juice bags, and then find a way to recycle them. And, as we now know, you can use your hands to squeeze the bags, so the machine itself is surplus to requirements.
So, here we have a 'no mess' juicer, that costs $700 (later reduced to $400), requiring a $35-50 weekly subscription for non-recyclable packs, which need cleaning and disposal. And Gwynnie says it's the "coolest invention of 2016".
This looks crazy, and it is. But we see and accept this type of madness all the time - I regularly cycle past Porsches, Ferraris, etc, stuck in central London traffic. They're 'aspirational'. (As a cyclist, I'm often smeared as 'anti-social'.)
Design for real needs, against real constraints
All humans have a variety of needs, and we try to meet them within constraints. A vital constraint that’s only starting to become widely understood is natural resource availability – the planet has finite resources with which to supply humans with raw materials for industry. The Aral Sea only had a finite amount of water to irrigate cotton crops, and then it ran out. There are even limits to the availability of sand, which rampant construction is using up at an increasing pace.
Given this new understanding, it’s clear that designers could play an important role in developing ways for society to function within resource constraints. Doing so relies on a new understanding of what design is – for clients, designers and the public.
If we continue to think of design as purely aesthetic, we’ll end up with pretty but useless stuff. If we fail to properly understand our goals and constraints, we’ll get amazing but dumb products like the Juicero Press. Potentially worse, we’ll end up with landfills full of waste generated in the name of conveniences, that aren’t actually convenient… Wait, we already have that.
Perhaps it’s time to re-consider how we use and think about 'design'.
Update: Juicero closed in September 2017, after tonnes of bad press. Not long after, a press was spotted in a charity shop for $40, presumably on its way to landfill or 'recycling'.