The design symposium that declared the majority of product design redundant
For a gathering of international product designers, the 2010 Alvar Aalto Design Seminar reached an unexpected consensus. Entitled ‘Invisible: the Origin of Product Identity’, the sixth annual event aimed to question the underlying values that inform contemporary design, but ultimately concluded that the majority of product design is unnecessary.
‘Ninety-five per cent of designers are working for just six to eight per cent of all consumers,’ claimed Hans Maier-Aichen, founder of the Authentics consumer products brand and professor of product design at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design. ‘The majority of these designers live off novelty, plagiarism and serialisation.’
Maier-Aichen went on to attack the basic morality of contemporary design, asking: are the objects we design really serving useful purposes? Rather than producing another iteration of a faceless and exchangeable product, how might designers employ altruism in their work? He gave developing world examples of the One Laptop Per Child technology programme and LifeStraw, a simple water purification device.
What the speakers rejected was design that, while perhaps materially durable, was susceptible to psychological redundancy - passing fashion and fads - and almost inevitably this guided the conversation towards notions of sustainability. Maier-Aichen’s biodegradable bin, or Swedish designer Monica Förster’s collapsible cloud room - an inflatable nylon meeting space - exemplified objects that are designed to have short, useful lives.
As graphic artist Katrin Olina pointed out, the obverse of thinking about sustainability in terms of short lifespan and recyclable materials is to pursue the durable, the eternal, or the absolute. Through her artwork, the Icelander presented snapshots of imaginary ecosystems in states of flux or equilibrium. Her fantastic worlds pivot on the positive and negative consequences of hyper-globalisation, exploring the complex relationship between humanity and nature.
The highlight of the seminar was undoubtedly the final speaker, Naoto Fukasawa, perhaps best known for his role at Muji. His basic philosophy is that designers should avoid creating unnecessary objects.
His work appeals to the Jungian archetype - a basic form of images that catalyses communal subconscious. ‘People are aware of what they want, but they are not conscious about it,’ he says. ‘If you ask them they will have no clue, but present them with the archetypal object and they will say: “I have been looking for something like this.”’
This means that for the designer, product design becomes less about creating something new and more about finding forms already within us. It is more important to re-circulate and reinforce common images of, say, the perfect chair than it is to create something meaningless and new.