Towards a culture oriented product design

A thesis by Trygve Ask for the diploma in industrial design submitted at The Institute of Industrial Design, Oslo School of Architecture, 1997.
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Summary and conclusions

My thesis is about industrial design, aesthetics and culture. In my opinion one of the key issues within industrial design is the question of good taste or good form. Who defines good taste and good form and on what grounds can one separate bad design from good design?

My thesis is an attempt to present and discuss some of the most influential theories and ideologies that many designers' judging of good and bad form are based upon. I also present and discuss new and present theories that are forming and could form a theoretical basis for the practice of industrial design.

In chapter 1 I discuss the influential role functionalism, with its core idea of objective and rational design, has played for, modern design. In Norway this idea has become evident through the focus on method, ergonomics and the emphasis on systematic design processes. Modernism within industrial design has meanwhile been attacked and criticised from various viewpoints the last 20 - 30 years. From Italian anti-design in the seventies to post-modernism in the eighties the question has been raised how objective and rational modernistic design was. One factor in making design with focus on function and rationality problematic, is the miniaturization of electronic components leaving little or no physical framework for a function oriented design.

In chapter 2 I take a closer look at productsemantics as an attempt to create a new theoretical framework and methodological tool for industrial design. It seems, however, that productsemantics, despite its interest in the cultural aspects of products, maintain the modernistic focus on function, usability and logic. Productsemantics, as I see it, limits it self to working only with the relationship between the user and product. The products social function and role as a symbol, identity mark or sign in a cultural context is apparently not taken into consideration.

Taste has become an important term many writers on cultural theory have been using to identify the cultural defined conventions and biases that makes us prefer one product to another. In chapter 3 I also take a closer look at the Swedish marketing director Carl Eric Linns term "metaproduct". Linn defines this term as the immaterial, cultural created picture we make of a product. The market value of this mental conception he calls "metavalue". This theory that taste and the valuation of products are results of social conventions, leaves few possibilities to maintain the cognition of objective form or an objective taste. This makes the modernistic dogma of rational and objective design even more problematic. However, the recognition of social conventions as the basis for taste, also opens for a variety of new theoretical and practical challenges for industrial design and designers. One question is how it is possible to design in accordance to someone else's taste. My suggestion in this thesis is that a stronger consideration by industrial designers to the variety of cultural established preferences and tastes could be a good start.

In chapter 4 I discuss some general topics concerning the development of a cultural oriented product design. I strongly oppose the understanding that customer in some way would be fooled or feel cheated if he/she is asked to pay more for a product that is designed according to his/her preferences than for a product that is not. It my belif that a person who pays with expense for a product will be satisfied if the price is according to the his/her expected experience of the product. An experience that is real and genuine for the consumer. Solely rational persons (if they exist) will anyway be able to evaluate the product according to its "real" qualities and accordingly refuse to buy the product if he/she finds it too expensive.

I also claim that there is a basic difference between science and design. While sciences in all forms mainly try to describe and interpret the existing world as accurate as possible, design is an activity to develop new objects to be part of this descriptive and interpetable world. To demand that design should follow scientific methods or logic would, in my opinion, not be an appropriate approach. Instead one should choose ways and methods in the design process according to a pragmatic approach rather than an ideological.

When the dream of objective form to a great extent has ceased to exist an orientation towards cultural aspects could open up for new challenges within industrial design. To be able to acquire knowledge about and insight into other cultures than ones own, it would be a natural step to seek knowledge, analytical tools, methods and data from other professions which have this as their field. In chapter 5 I present some suggestions on possible approaches to a culture oriented product design process. My suggestions are mainly loose ideas based upon the conclusions of this thesis and are not in any way intended to be normative for further investigations.

I would anyway like to emphasize that a methodological and systematic executed design process by no means guarantees innovative or creative solutions. Industrial design will, in my opinion, always be dependent on creativity, intuition and empathy combined with the ability to visualize and specify ideas and concepts in some kind of material form. Creative and ingenious designers would be a most essential requisite to a culture oriented product design. If the designer in addition could train and legitimate use his/her sensibility and intuition it would be a long step in the right direction.

In my thesis I have use more time discussing and arguing for the possibility of a culture oriented product design rather than defining how such an orientation in detail should be executed. A lot of both practical and theoretical problems are yet to be discussed before the establishment of methods or a practical framework for the design process (pragmatics). How industrial design is taught and the pedagogical consequences is one problematic area that should be discussed. How industrial design is presented towards and conceived by industry and society is another. Designers can hardly demand authority on objective form if we don't take in consideration that taste and preferences are relative values. Such a consideration could open up for the developing of knowledge and competence on form (and style) in relation to culture. I am convinced that such knowledge and competence connected to the ability to develop products accordingly would be of great interest to industry. If this kind of competence does not become an integrated part of industrial design I am also convinced that it will be (and to some extent it is) developed within other professions.

The reason my thesis is concentrated on the issue of form in relation to culture and taste, is because I see form as the main responsibility for an industrial designer within a team of product developers. There will always be professions that know construction, production, ergonomics, marketing and economy better than the designer. Industrial form is what, in my opinion, the industrial designer needs to be an expert on. Aesthetics, or "the rules for what is beautiful" can, on the basis of the conclusions of my thesis, not be claimed to be universal rules on good taste and good form. Aesthetics might, however, be useful as a sociological, anthropological or ethnological term used to identify cultural and social rules for what is considered desireable or not. The development of the ability and knowledge needed to design within such a complex area is, according to my view, the main challenge for industrial design as a profession.