Monday, November 23, 2009

Through his poignant documentary “Objectified,” director Gary Hustwit illuminates the purpose of design by investigating the process of design. Interviews with a variety of contemporary designers from around the world are the main vehicle for this investigation. In these interviews many common philosophies are uncovered. One of the most prevalent is that the primary goal of any design should be to enhance the lives of people. Although many of the designers who were interviewed were hired to design consumer objects they approached their jobs with this goal in mind.

Designing for long term use was one way they endeavored to achieve this. Dieter Rams, the former design director for Braun, commented “the arbitrariness and thoughtlessness with which things are produced” was causing us to have “too many unnecessary things everywhere.” The film shows footage of a brainstorming meeting between designers at IDEO which confronts this problem on a small scale. The design that came out of that session is a toothbrush with a wooden handle that uses only disposable tips. In so doing they not only limit the amount of plastic which is manufactured and disposed of, they also potentially increase the meaning of the object for the user. On a larger scale, this design may serve as an incremental step towards acclimating users to a culture which is more sustainable.

Although often achieved in small steps, by creating objects within a consumer culture, “Objectified” shows that designers are able to meet their most lofty objective. By determining not only the desires but the needs of people, and by producing something that meets those needs in the simplest way possible, for as long as possible, designers are able to enrich the lives of people.

To purchase the film, or for more info, vist:

Nathan Shedroff

Nathan Shedroff is a professor at the California College of Arts in San Francisco, an enrepenuer, and author of “Design Is The Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable.” In a recent lecture to design students at UC Davis, Shedroff posed questions about the future of our world and provided insight as to how intelligent design can help us make sure it is a world which is sustainable. Shedroff responded by giving form to the nebulous buzz word with venn diagrams showing sustainability as the area where economics, sociology, and ecology intersect. “When assessing sustainability” he said, “this is the triple bottom line.”

A definition this broad and complex is contrary to the prevailing notion of sustainability as being primarily, if not exclusively, concerned with ecology. This is perhaps due to the tendency of the word to be used in the same conversation, if not the same sentence, as the flagrantly over used term “green” when referring to that which is environmentally sound. Taking this further, Shedroff explained that economics were in fact at the heart of sustainability and illustrated this by displaying an image of concentric circles with economics represented by the inner most circle. He also emphasized that this was an important fact for young designers, or anyone concerned with making significant progress in this area, to remember. This is because we live in a society were economics are often thought of as the sole bottom line in any decision. This model though, Shedroff says, is “fundamentally flawed” because it fails to address the social and ecological aspects of the equation.

To end his lecture by emphasizing the relationship between successful design and sustainable design and charging the young design students with the task of expanding the scope of design in the world to consider not only product but purpose, meaning, effect, and longevity.

Find out more about Nathan Shedroff at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Visualize Positive Change: The Eisenhower Interstate System

By rendering the United States’ Eisenhower Interstate System “in the style of H.C. Beck’s London Underground Diagram,” Australian born graphic designer Cameron Booth has created an image of which is part clever graphic, part empowering visualization for enacting change.

While there are many Americans who probably have never traveled on an underground rail system, most have taken some form of public transportation at some point in their lives in which case they likely would have spent considerable time scrutinizing a diagram that looked a lot like this one. This is because the style of H.C. Beck’s underground diagram was so successful that it has become ubiquitous in all forms of public transit. The three major elements of the design which make it successful are simplicity, clarity, and aesthetic appeal.

To achieve this simplicity the background of the diagram designed to be relatively neutral. As in Booth’s image of the Eisenhower Interstate System the only geographic elements included are major land-water borders and national borders. Moreover, these elements are not defined by dark lines but rather depicted only by contrasting white with washed out neutral color tones of tan and light blue. In order to enhance the clarity of the image all other information except that which applies directly to train lines and stations has been omitted. In addition, the paths of the train lines have been simplified to reflect the course of their travel in terms of straight lines arranged along a perfect horizontal, vertical, or diagonal axis. This gives the diagram a feeling of continuity and order. The color coding of the train lines is also important. Assigning a specific unique color to each train line not only contributes to the clarity of the diagram, making it easier to read, but also creates visual interest by enhancing aesthetic appeal. The use of vibrant color in contrast to the neutral background stimulates excitement while the diverse array across the spectrum of color induces positive feelings in the same manner as a rainbow or a bowl of brightly colored candy.

By rendering the Eisenhower Interstate System in this way Booth may help others to re-envision United States travel. Seeing our existing freeways adapted to a design this familiar and accessible makes the idea of continental high speed rail travel seem possible. The simple aesthetic appeal of the design makes the idea feel positive. In this way, Booth is going a step further than merely suggesting that the highways be turned in to railways; he is providing people with a positive vision of what this idea could look like.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Avian Illuminations

The lighting design of Zhili Liu bears striking resemblance to its inspiration.
Photos taken from and

This collection of designer lighting was created by Zhili Liu of Shanghai to resemble various specific species of birds. Although the materials used are simple bone china sockets, bare incandescent bulbs, and minimalist suspension hardware, the resemblance to birds Liu achieves is uncanny. This can be attributed in part to the angle of the lights all of which echo the axis of a bird about which there is the greatest symmetry. This axis is oriented at roughly a 45 degree angle to resemble a bird perched upright as seen in the “Sparrow” and “Nightingale” arrangements, or to represent ascending flight as seen in “Doves”. The irregular rhythm, created by the spacing and rotation of the bulbs, presents an illusion of motion while making the composition of “Sparrow” and “Doves” seem organic. The “Nightingale” design makes use of a sort of lamp shade (although it is colorless transparent glass) that resembles a bird cage. In all of Liu’s avian inspired designs this subtle use of compositional elements found in nature evokes the feelings of peace and awe. The same feelings many have when regarding the presence of birds in the world around them. This sublime kinesthetic empathy is capable of breathing life into any indoor space.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"A Serious Man"

“A Serious Man”, the new film by Ethan and Joel Coen, was officially released on October 2 in the USA. Without knowing anything about the directors or the movie itself, the movie poster stands on its own as a biting little piece of black comedy by using an ironic juxtaposition of two symmetrically weighted subjects. Though it is incredibly simple, the image of a man dressed in conservative 1960s era clothing on the roof of a house next to a flimsy looking VHF television antenna seems to speak volumes. The contrast of his dramatic stance with the less than dramatic lighting contributes to the irony as well. If the image was created with hard light and long heavy shadows it would have had a depth and intensity which likely would have looked serious. Or if sky was full of awe inspiring clouds, extending the depth of the image, some the irony would be lost. Instead, the man stands there against the backdrop of a flat looking blue sky with his hands on his hips and his posture slightly slumped. His legs are spread in a confident pose and his countenance bears vague and curiously serious look. In spite of the title “A Serious Man” and the serious look of the man’s posture and expression, it is nevertheless impossible to take this man seriously. Every aspect of the image makes the seriousness of the man ridiculous. It is a scene which inspires as many insights as it does questions about the character and his story. This combination of development and intrigue is made possible by the precarious balance of the implicit and explicit within this image.

Satan Be Praised

In an unlikely era of digital downloads, the Portland (via Alaska) band Portugal The Man has released their newest collection of music “The Satanic Satanist” with packaging that rivals even the most ambitious 1970’s vintage (vinyl record) album art. Like it’s forefathers from this bygone era “The Satanic Satanist” does more than just sit there looking psychedelic; it moves, it changes, it engages. In total, five separate flaps need to be unfolded before the disc can even be glimpsed. All of these flaps are die cut into wispy cloud shapes and mystical characters in colorful scenes which can be (almost magically) reconfigured into different scenes by changing the way they are folded. Designers in the 70’s utilized a variety of techniques like die cutting to create multi-demensional covers with inserts and elaborate ways of making the would be listener “work” to unsheathe their vinyl. The goal was to give the user something more tangible and engaging than a static image. In this way the auditory perception of the music could become intertwined with both optic and haptic perception. Now, with more and more music junkies getting their fix via the digital vein, it is uncommon to see this level of detail and interactive embellishment in any music packaging design. The logic is that if fewer and fewer people are purchasing hard copies of music (or purchasing music at all) then it is not fiscally sound to invest in expensive packaging design. However, the CD is not dead yet. Even old vinyl has been regaining popularity in the last few years. Especially in the case of vinyl, this is largely due to a nostalgic sort of reverence which has been fostered by the rapid decline of the compact disc format. So, if people are still purchasing CDs, and if a significant number of people, who presumably used to be purchasing CDs, are now purchasing records it is reasonable to infer that these people are motivated by a desire to own something more tangible than a digital file. Therefore, if you are a band that is going to bother to sell your music on CD and/or vinyl, the best way to appeal to this market is to really give them something to experience.

Olympic Pictograms

Like all well designed pictograms, the pictograms for the London 2012 Olympic games are an example of form following function; their primary purpose being to communicate information. The design committee has used clean lines and simple, two dimensional shapes with a minimum of detail in achieving this purpose. Of course they have put a subtle stylistic spin on their designs as well. The defining elements of this design scheme are the extra lines which accompany each figure and the use of color. These extra lines extend form each figure on a vertical and/or horizontal axis. This gives a gridded feeling reminiscent of architectural or mechanical drawing. However, where those types of illustrations typically depict static objects, the grid lines serve to make the pictograms more dynamic by comparison. Each pictogram is composed of both turquoise and fuchsia lines which almost seem to be randomly assigned. Occasionally, each color represents a particular element of the picture, but often the color serves primarily to make these seem more eye catching, energetic and interesting. All told, this is a safe and functional design choice, practical with just a touch of original style. These pictograms should succeed at helping people navigate the Olympic village but their aesthetic is far from spectacular.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Outside Inspiration

Those creators who inspire revolution through dramatic improvement on or compelling deviation from the creations of their contemporaries are often regarded as originals. This seems to imply that they alone are the point of origin from which their ideas emanate, as if they are the creative equivalent of the Big Bang. However, unlike the Big Bang which has no fathomable history preceding it, every creator has a personal history chalk full of millions of stimuli and experiences which predates each and every one of their creations. Therefore, it is impossible for any person to create something which is devoid of outside inspiration. In his essay “The Etymology of Design: Pre Socratic Perspective” Kostas Terzidis breaks down notions of originality and innovation with respect to design when he claims
“design as a mental process of creation can be seen as bounded by the limits of preservation: any newly conceived thought, process, or form is nothing but a reordering of previous ones.”
If this is true then it is only the order and combination of ideas which can be called innovative. Likewise, it is not innovative ideas but rather innovative combinations or expressions of ideas which can make a creator revolutionary. This makes even more sense if one considers that these exalted revolutionary creations would not soar to such heights of popularity if they were not made up of ideas that resonated with great numbers of people.
Typographic Exploration In Hangul: Work by Hyunju Lee and Phil Choo

If a boundary line does exist between art and design it is certainly an ambiguous one. Typically, typography is a term one would expect to find on the design side of this dichotomy. However, if you squint your eyes while examining “Typographic Exploration in Hangul” you may not see it that way. The exhibit, which showcases the works of Hyunju Lee and Phil Choo at the UC Davis Walker Design Gallery October 4 – December 6, 2009, uses the native script of Korea to evoke emotion and communicate messages with both explicit and implicit meaning. While typography is commonly used to evoke emotion and is intrinsically tied to its primary function of communication, it is the implicit, higher order messages which make this edge toward the artistic. Both “Sad” and “Stand Up” are particularly effective at conveying visceral feeling through visual elements. Unfortunately, while all of the works are skillful in composition and technical execution, the neon rainbow color palate, lack of variation in typography and simple themes result in an exploration which is fairly mundane and ineffectual.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"I and Love and You"

The Avett Brothers newest album entitled "I and Love and You" just hit shelves earlier this month with packaging as stark as the change listeners will hear in the band's music contained therein. A blurred vision of an old woman with posture twisted in on herself, whether by pain or pleasure is unclear, appears alone against a black background. Inside, vaguely grotesque renderings of the three band members seem to stare with faces twisted by severity, each one alone in a sea of black. The collection of songs, created with superstar producer Rick Rubin guiding the recording sessions, is comprised of predominately subtle, if not sparse, piano driven arrangements. This is a significant departure from the fairly extensive catalog of independently produced, rather raucous blue grass/new grass/ punk grass albums which have garnered an impressive number of fans over the course of the last few years. The heavy look of the album helps give weight to the "mission statement" displayed prominently on the inside cover in which one of the brothers attests to the omnipresent nature of love and the many ways it influences life. It, like the music, is arrestingly sincere and beautifully articulated with an overriding tone of optimism. The Avett Brothers don't sugar coat there message though. The bleak and the tortured are equally represented. In this way the album artwork serves as vivid counterpoint to the music in expressing the broad scope of the meaning of "I and Love and You".
Robert Welch Stanton Satin Silverware Set

Although packaging can often be deceiving, in the case of the Stanton Satin five piece silverware set by designer Robert Welch the packaging almost says it all. The box is long, glossy black rectangle. Printed lengthwise in the center, the designers name stands alone in brilliant white, hand written lettering. It is as if to say "this was designed by Robert Welch and that is all anybody needs to know." It seems an expression of pride or accomplishment or a promise of quality. Although the design contains only two words, the aesthetic embodies other words which are then associated with the product. Words like classy, elegant, and understated. As it turns out, all of the hype inspired by this simple packaging is an accurate representation of the product it contains. The silverware is designed with a superb combination of classic lines and subtle modern personality. This personality characterized by tastefully exaggerated width and curvature. It looks like someone took a set of high end silverware and put them in a furnace long enough for them to start to melt slightly. The spoons are the most unique element of the five piece set, extending from narrow "necks" into round "heads" that look just like balloons. Most of the edges on all of the pieces have been rounded smooth. This combines with the satin texture to create a very soft, sensuous feeling for hands and mouths alike.

Before Gatorade water was the only sports beverage. After Gatorade was introduced, the so called "Thirst Quencher" proceed to dominate if not define the market for many years before any rivals could even hope to challenge them. These days the market is saturated. It seems like every year there is a stadium full of companies peddling new drinks purported to enhance athletic performance. But amidst contenders for the throne, the old veteran still reigns supreme. However, as a likely attempt to stay current and hold their market share, Gatorade has refreshed its image. Now sporting a much more transparent label like many of those we have seen in the vitamin water camp, Gatorade may be vying for an elevated level of perceived purity. Indeed, the lightning bolt is the sole element of color other than the bright color of the liquid itself. Also similar to vitamin water like opponents is the diminutive denotation of flavor. Those observant enough to locate the flavor of a bottle of Gatorade are often rewarded with nothing more than an arbitrary name such as "Riptide Rush". This vague description tends to make it a little too obvious that the flavor of any Gatorade is almost indiscernible without visual cues. More curious is there move to minimize the presence of the company name and focus on a huge letter "G" along with the trademark lightning bolt as the dominant element on opposing sides of the packaging. This may be an effort to seem like a new exciting choice to younger consumers while still holding on to a symbol of their past reputation. Of course, there is the possibility that this new look will end up like the aging rock star who finally cuts his hair to modernize his image, causing him to look considerably older in comparison to the similarly styled younger generation while alienating his loyal fans at the same time.

OXO Travel Mug

As a fiscally conscious coffee aficionado (I suspect that may be Italian for "addict") I endeavor to brew my own breakfast beverage in the morning. When this is not possible and I am forced to procure my percolated potion at a commercial establishment, as an environmentally conscious consumer, I try to avoid using disposable containers. In either situation, a trusty travel mug is just what the doctor ordered. I used to have an older model OXO travel mug that I loved like she was my only child but sadly we lost track of each other in a shopping mall one day and I never saw her again. Recently, I adopted what appears to be a newer version of the mug I lost. Its 16 ounce stature is the same; imparting an ample dose of caffeine without hopping you up so much that you enthusiastically volunteer to take on extra work at the office . It has the same sleek handle free contours; allowing it to slide unencumbered in to almost any cup holder. The highly effective spill proof black plastic lid with push button closure butted up against an ergonomic, concave rubberized comfort grip give me vivid flashbacks of my missing loved one. However, this is where the similarities end. Below the grip, where the ring on my finger used to sound a resounding "ping" on a surface of brushed stainless steel, my ring emits only a flat "plunk" on the shiny plastic now in its place. It was enough to fool me in to ordering it from the online catalog but that plastic is a glaring disappointment in person. If it were only an external and therefore superficial shortcoming then perhaps I could overlook it. But alas, the heart of the OXO travel mug is plastic too. With mounting evidence indicating that plastics transfer harmful chemicals to food products especially when heat is involved, this is a design flaw I simply can not abide. After all, this is a mug. Its intended purpose is to hold extremely hot liquids until they are ready to be ingested. I don't want my caffeine laced with noxious petroleum byproducts thank you very much. I am putting the OXO travel mug back on the shelf and holding out for steel blue reason.