Is Design Ready for a Rethink?

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

We’ve been catching up on some reading and just now got around to Swedish designer and strategist David Carlson’s spring 2010 trend report, which argues that it’s “time to rethink design.” The jist of the problem is that our obsession with newness is polluting the planet and this “state of aesthetic proliferation…has reached accumulative and destructive levels, in terms of loss of meaning, value, and identity.”

He cites a few examples. At the high end, the iPhone falls short of true ‘one purpose’ functionality because it requires an additional protective skin that could be built into the product, while at the low end McDonald’s Happy Meal toys have so little value designed into them that they’re quickly unwanted and discarded. Another classic example is the chair, which continues to be redesigned thousands and thousands of times even though we have plenty of good chairs on the market.

There are lots of good catch-phrases in the article — such as “Design is no longer about lifestyle, but lifecycle,” and it’s hard to disagree with much of the content. There are also several points that we wish were fleshed out further. For instance, the assertion that design is less than a hundred years old and has suffered from its own success, which leads to unnecessary products and “not the means to respond to authentic human need.” A statement like this makes us wonder when the author thinks design really began, why it started in the vein it did, and what keeps it from responding to authentic need. There’s also an underlying tension in the fact that this is a trend report that’s critical of novelty.

That said, the style of the report is purposefully stream-of-consciousness, it’s very readable, and it uses the language of slogans and call-outs to make some very good points. And the unease at the core of the report is similar to the tension that faces the design world as a whole: How do we adopt a more sustainable approach to design when there’s still such demand for novelty — from consumers and manufacturers alike?

The report singles out a few designers and thinkers as role models. William McDonough’s and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle philosophy is one example of a thoughtful solution. Tom Dixon’s pressed grass china cups are lauded for their biodegradability, and Ecuadorian Kuntiqi surfboards are praised for using renewable balsa wood and non-toxic linseed oil rather than polystyrene and polyurethane.

Carlson concludes by stating that it’s “time for design to take on the mantle of responsibility, not to ignore what is happening around us.” What we’re left wondering by the end of the piece is whether design as a whole is ready to be rethought. How can or will sustainable design branch out from the fringes and overtake the mainstream McDonald’s Happy Meal way of doing things? There are more questions than answers in this piece, and the gap between long-term design thinking and short-term market needs remains unbridged. Or, in the words of David Carlson, how will we “transcend the norm and leave the world a better place than we found it”?

READ THE REPORT: Time to Rethink Design