Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Material?

Can I create a new material that is recyclable, non-composite, or renewable that shows wear, records use, or develops patina? This Eindhoven student created a new material, a 'yarn' from newsprint, to produce objects.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What is Wear?

A friend just told me about his father's truck. It has over 300,000 miles on it and a couple interesting wear marks on the interior from being used so much. The edge of the driver's side seat is rubbed bare from getting into the tall vehicle. Also, the middle section of the front bucket seat shows wear from the driver's arm resting there. These examples remind me that wear isn't just a recording of the object's life, but often is direct evidence of people's use, behavior, and interaction.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

In Search of Authenticity

In the Regina Bendix book, In Search of Authenticity, she writes, "Authenticity is generated not from the bounded classification of an other, but from the probing comparison between self and other, as well as between external and internal states of being."

According to her, authenticity isn't an objective characteristic, but a judgment made by each consumer if a product aligns with their belief system and identity.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Manufacturing Desire and Shaping Identity

I believe brands provide information to consumers and attempt to manufacture desire within them. Consumers choose, through purchase and use, to incorporate the associations, connotations, feelings, and status that they believe is conveyed by a brand within their own identity. Consumers use objects and possessions to communicate who they are to others and form their own self-image.

Personally, I am typically reluctant to own items that loudly advertise themselves, like a t-shirt with a massive Nike swoosh or glasses with a bold D&G on the temple. I sometimes remove labels that are visible even if I like the company, like the Coal winter hat I have. Most of the things I own are quiet self-advertisers, however, there are a few items that I don't mind having their logo showing, probably because I relate strongly to the company and product. For example, my Freitag bag and Sigg bottle both have branding visible, although relatively subtle, on their exterior. I imagine these brands closely align with who I think I am and how I want others to view me.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

This book by Leonard Koren is a fantastic brief overview of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. I found the following excerpts particularly valuable and relevant.
Things wabi-sabi are expressions of time frozen. They are made of materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment. They record the sun, wind, rain, heat, and cold in a language of discoloration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shriveling, and cracking. Their nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents, peeling, and other forms of attrition are a testament to histories of use and misuse.
"Things wabi-sabi are appreciated only during direct contact and use."

And maybe most importantly, things wabi-sabi are simple: "Pare down to the essence, but don't remove the poetry."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Raw Denim Values

The values that I identify with in raw denim:

Durability - These jeans are meant to last years - even with everyday use. The seeking of wear, only acquired through extended, repeated use encourages keeping and using them for a long time.

Conservation - Energy required to wash and sand most jeans isn't wasted. These are processes that attempt to create the illusion of long-term wear, but greatly decrease the lifespan of the product.

Authenticity - The wear marks of raw denim are legitimate, 'earned' evidence of commitment to an object and a process.

Individuality - Because the denim isn't pre-washed or pre-worn, the jeans break in and conform to the owner's body - permanently making them uniquely theirs.

History - The jeans become a record of the events and objects in one's life, with physical evidence of the bike crash, spray paint can explosion, or cell phone.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Relationship Cycles

There is a common path that a relationship with an object can take - markedly similar to relationships with people. First, we see, covet, or desire - the crush. Then we research, read reviews, and shop around - flirting and initial dates. Next comes purchase - committed serious dating, but still very much in the honeymoon phase. Adaptation and possibly the onset of mundanity - marriage. As many marriages end in divorce, an object relationship is fairly likely to end with disposal, or at least an extended separation in the closet or basement, while a new object takes its place. Fairly rare is the reconnection or revitalization of the relationship.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Materials, Wear, Beausage, and Wabi-Sabi

Continuing the post about the impact of material choice on an object, the physical material of the object also has the potential to extend and deepen the human-object relationship. It can become a visual and haptic recording of its story and use, literally aging with its user. However, there is a key difference between materials wearing in and wearing out. Natural materials, like leather, denim, and wood, can age with dignity, becoming more beautiful over time. Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycles, and designer of the renowned RB-1 Bridgestone, created the portmanteau beausage to describe the beauty that can develop over time through the use of a product. Grant said, "In general, real materials develop beausage, and synthetics look like old junk." These synthetics, instead of developing a patina and a recorded history of its 'life', just look dirty. Even though we might have a plastic computer mouse that still works, we replace it because it looks grimy and stained. But there are ways to design plastics that acknowledge the inevitability of wear. This concept car design understands that bumpers will get scratched and worn.

The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi accepts the transience and embraces the beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete". The wabi-sabi aesthetic recognizes that time will pass and materials will wear - and designs for it.
The simplicity of wabi-sabi is best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence…Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn’t mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn’t mean in any way diminishing something’s “interestingness”, the quality that compels us to look at that something over, and over, and over again.
In addition to the source of the above passage, Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, I should look at About Time and Eternally Yours: Design in Time, a collection of writings on product endurance and durability.

How simple is too simple?

Don Norman makes the claim, in this essay, that simplicity is overrated. According to his research, people will often buy products with more features, even if they are more complicated. Consumers feel like they are getting more for their money, even though these features will probably never be used. Fewer features imply less control and less value to many users.

I should also read Don Norman's Emotional Design.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Investigation Possibilities:

Document my own relationship with my raw denim. I can take photos that record the wearing in of my jeans.

Document relationship with a new object. I can find something that I would love to have and document my thoughts and feelings as I research, covet, purchase, unbox, use, and become accustomed to the object.

Compile photos of objects (and the actual objects, when possible) that have gained character, developed a patina, endured over time, depict beausage, and embody wabi-sabi.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Synthesis: Designing for Endurance

After realizing in class today that most of the ideas I've written about so far are very interconnected, I need to try to define, and continue to refine, my project concept:

I intend to investigate the cycle of human-object relationships to enhance, extend, and enrich the experience. A designer can strengthen this relationship through need, attachment, meaningfulness, identification, reliability, usefulness, appreciation, excitement, beauty, unexpectedness, and change.

What is designing for endurance, or anti-obsolescence design? Through material and design choices can we not only design for long life, but also easily reuse (and not downcycle) the object's material should its usefulness expire? Our current economic model relies on planned obsolescence. What kind of business model does anti-obsolescence create? Tony Fry's Redirective Design Manifesto lists several methods for designing for sustainment: eliminating, combining, dematerializing, revitalizing, sharing, and creating smarter longer lasting things. But all of these mean less stuff. We know making less is good for the earth, but how is selling less good for business?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Too Much Information?

In what ways has easy access to so much information, much of it for free (Project Gutenberg, NASA digital elevation maps, baseball statistics, Wikipedia, etc.), changed the way we live, consume, think, communicate, and value? For example, does not knowing matter when it is so easy to know something? I think this has, in a way, killed trivia. Before the internet, Trivial Pursuit was a phenomenon because it was a novel information source - now it is a sad box of mostly expired information. Coudal had a trivia contest a couple of years ago, except they vetted the questions, making sure the information wasn't on the internet - until they posted the answers. How long will it be until every known thing is searchable and knowable?

Can design reject itself?

This article on Design Observer is about the state of graphic design and illustration, but mentions a book by John Carey called What Good are the Arts? In it, the author contends that literature is the pre-eminent art form because:
it can criticize itself. Pieces of music can parody other pieces, and paintings can caricature paintings. But this does not amount to a total rejection of music and painting. Literature, however, can totally reject literature, and in this it shows itself more powerful and self-aware than any other art.
I have no desire to jump into the 'art or design' fray, but I think it does provoke an interesting question: Can a designed object "totally reject" design? I'm not sure what rejecting design would entail (maybe reading the self-rejection of literature would be helpful?), but it could be a compelling investigation.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Human-Object Relations

Objects play signficant roles in our lives. But there are two ends of the spectrum of human-object relations: the extreme and the mundane. At the extreme, there exists the super-collectors, addicts, and brandwhores that actively consume, use, and collect. As mentioned in the brand allegiance post, user forums are a great source of information about these relationships. At the mundane, the relationship is so passive, the objects are so much a part of our world, that we do not acknowledge them. Fukasawa and Morrison call these objects Supernormal and Bruno Munari called them anonymous. But by any name these "quietly extraordinary" objects are so essential and pure that they are invisible. However, these are the most enduring objects because they are timeless and never go out of fashion.

Revitalizing the Lost, Forgotten, and Discarded

While writing a short bio for the Industry Projects class with Danese, I was reflecting on past projects to find common threads in my work. I realized that my best projects have involved revitalizing lost, forgotten, or discarded objects, crafts, and practices via new contexts. I think this continues the ideas in the previous post about retro. What is the appeal of the archaic and obsolete? How can we utilize objects that already exist and make them interesting again? The current rate of obsolescence means we have a massive supply of materials that are no longer wanted. However, the recently out of fashion, by definition, can't be cool. Objects seem to need to fade away before they have a chance to be appreciated again. How long does that take, and can a designer shorten the time needed by placing it in the right context?

Originals and Reproduced 'Retro'

Deadstock (and some used) Nike waffle trainers from the early 80s had been selling for $100-200 dollars for years on Ebay. I bid on a few pairs but never was willing to spend what the auctions eventually reached. I'm sure there was some aspect of their rarity that made them appealing, but when Nike started released a whole line of vintage trainers a couple years ago, I had little interest in either. Since one couldn't differentiate the originals from the nearly identical and common repros, the originals lost any cachet they had. And the repros weren't cool because they seemed like such a blatant marketing campaign - they came with pre-stained laces (that were actually dyed), yellowed rubber, and purposefully inconsistent sewing. Although some of the marketing materials were humorous, it felt like Nike didn't get why people liked the originals. I must not speak for the public though, because I think they sold fairly well.

Part of the reason people like things that aren't made anymore is because they aren't made anymore.

Value of Things

Christine Atha, in her design historian candidate talk, mentioned the difference in the value of things (goods or materials) in the West vs. the developing world. Because of the abundance of objects, we often don't conserve, respect, or appreciate the things that surround us. In the U.S. we had to learn, especially since World War II, how to use (throw away) all the new disposable items, like paper towels and food packaging. Things and material lost value. I should read the rest of Waste and Want, by Susan Strasser, if I decide to go this direction. Chapter Seven quotes historian John A. Kouwenhoven from 1959:
A commitment to democracy - and a certain indifference to waste and untidiness - are prerequisite to abundance ... waste is as much a result of democracy as abundance.
How can Americans relearn not to take material (and natural capital) for granted?

Multifunctionality vs. Particularity

While working on the Danese project this semester, we've been thinking a lot about combining functions and breaking out of typologies by focusing on behavior. However, targeting one very specific behavior and function is also intriguing. The philosophy of Unix software development is "Do one thing, and do it well." A great example of this in objects is Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny's Writing Table No. 3.

The top of the large wood frame table is made of thousands of strips of paper that form a forgiving surface designed solely for writing. Other behaviors, like eating, are implicitly discouraged because of the pristine, white, uncleanable material. Another interesting aspect of this project is the way in which objects can communicate their intended use.

Particularity is a refreshing approach compared to today's ubiquity of feature creep and multifunction.

Impact of Materials

This might be more of an investigation, but producing a set of objects in a single material, or one object in multiple materials could be interesting. It has the advantage of reducing complexity, as in either project, there is a significant constant. The form of many objects is determined by the material, so substituting another material can make for compelling, awkward, or surprising results. A good example of this is Maarten Baas's Plastic Chair in Wood. The same object in several materials could be another method of showing how much the material can change the nature of the object.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Futile Pursuit of Happiness

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness, discusses the circumstances and conditions in which people incorrectly predict their future emotional states. Although our ability to imagine the future - which guides us in our decision making between multiple possibilities - is what defines our humanness, we are actually very poor forecasters. Our imagination fails us in three ways: it fills in and leaves out details without telling us, it projects the present onto the future, and it fails to recognize that things will look different once they happen.

I will describe the most compelling ideas in this book in future posts.

Human Adaptability

Human beings, as a species, have a remarkable ability to adapt: to environments, to conditions, to circumstances, to conveniences, and to technologies. With relation to products, what is the rate at which the things we buy become ordinary (or necessary)? And then, once we have lost our innocence, is it possible to retrieve? Can something stay fresh and new? If so, how? Today, because of fashion, trends, and technological advancements, products become outdated practically instantly. This system of production and consumption that industrial design (and styling) has driven is obviously unsustainable.

In Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things, he calls on designers to guide the next, dematerialized, technocultural revolution (after Artifacts, Machines, Products, and Gizmos) of Spimes. Sterling defines a technocultural revolution as when that technoculture cannot voluntarily return to the previous technocultural condition. Can the networked set of sensors and data that define Spimes be a key to 'living objects' to which we can't adapt and therefore don't need replacing?

Brand Allegiance

Why do people have allegiances to brands? How are these loyalties cultivated, developed, and maintained? Is allegiance to anti-brands, like American Apparel and the Black Spot shoe, the same as allegiance to branded products? I still need to read No Logo (it's on our bookshelf) and should look at Adbusters and brand forums like Consumer organized web forums on brands and products are fascinating, here is a quote from the front page of mynudies:

What is Nudie Jeans?
Nudie is the "naked truth about denim". Indigo is the living color that fades and together with your lifestyle gives denim its character. The longer they live the more character they get. Besides leather, only denim has the ability to age so beautifully - formed by its user into a second skin. Jeans are a lot more than just a piece of clothing; a pair of jeans is like a second skin, naked and personal = Nudie.

The provenance and movement of goods in the modern (and, yes, flat) world.

Goods have traversed the globe for centuries, but never at the pace, volume, and complexity that they do today - much of the reason why it is so difficult (impossible?) to accurately calculate carbon footprint. I should read The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, if I want to proceed with this idea.

I am very interested in the 'life' of products - not only trying to design for long life (endurance or anti-obsolescence), but also the extraordinary tale of history, knowledge, and capability that each product tells. Getting an item from the thrift store, for example, is always interesting because often there is some evidence of where or when it was made. But the mystery of how it got to that place, where it has been, and how it has affected the people it's come into contact with is largely unknown. Each thing has a unique story, and more often than not, little of that story is known. When more is known, like some of the items on "Antiques Roadshow," it often makes for a very compelling narrative.

What is mainstream, or mass market, product design today?

From the IDSA portfolio review of 3/8/08 at UIC. A couple of reviewers, young professionals in ID, mentioned my portfolio pieces should be more mainstream. In today's Long Tail world, what defines mainstream anymore? Ralph Gilles, VP of Design at Chrysler, in a talk at SAIC said they produce some of their models expecting them to sell less than 20000 units per year. The trend seems to favor more targeted and specialized products.

Update 11/10/2008: Or maybe not.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Intentions and Goals

This blog is intended to document the process of my Master's Thesis in Designed Objects at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I think the exercise of writing, analyzing, compiling, distilling, and recording will be valuable throughout this process.

The first series of posts will describe the ideas for thesis projects I think have the most potential from the list I have compiled since March of 2008.

The next set will delve into the research and investigations for this project.

And the final section will record my work and progress to the ultimate outcome of the