Jul 9, 2009

Dan Formosa, Designing for Humans: Musings on Product Design

Entry #1

At the San Diego Y-Conference earlier this year, I gave a presentation outlining the social and political upheavals prior to the establishment of our office, Smart Design.  The presentation got the attention of the CrossCultural Junction, and an invitation to join as an ongoing contributor.

I think I’ll start off my first blog post with the same introduction, discussing cultural and political influences in the 1950’s and ‘60s that for us spawned the idea that design was due for a change.  This is all from a US perspective – even if your experiences were quite different, maybe this will trigger some thoughts about those personal influences.

If you are from the US and were not around in the ‘60s then you missed an extremely interesting decade. Among many other things, it was a good time to formulate an idea of where design was, and is, and where it should be going.

In the post-war 1950s, the US faced a number of significant social problems. Racial issues were rampant throughout the US, especially prevalent in the south, where white people and black people were routinely divided. Slavery had been abolished less than 100 years prior to that, and sentiments remained. Females were considered second-class citizens, stereotyped as housewives or otherwise neatly objectified. WWII had just been won by a (predominantly) male army, and US males continued to rule in business and other aspects of American life, with females’ role apparently to be both subservient and grateful. The baby-boom generation (a fifteen year span starting in 1948) was underway, with early inklings that the US may soon be in for a major shift.

By the early 1960s things were changing. Counter-culture movements started to emerge. The Civil Rights movement, violent at times, was gaining momentum. The baby-boom generation, better educated than previous generations, was questioning authority and starting to rebel. Art, music and pop culture were taking a turn.

By the late 1960s the anti-war movement, along with anti-government, anti-big-business, and other anti-establishment sentiments, were in full swing. Some movements were peaceful, others were not. By the late 60s and early 70s the Feminist movement was gaining significant ground.

Meanwhile, by the 1970s product design had earned a rather bad reputation. Many companies took the attitude that design was an “applied” thing – and like advertising, a way to entice people to buy products that often promised a lot more than they delivered. A great number of products that made an attempt to be aesthetically pleasing were (deservedly) regarded as suspicious in quality and function. Products, including significant items such as automobiles, helped define the field of design as a way to gloss something over – focus on the superficial.

Faux wood grain, excessive tail fins or “mock-European” styles typified the practice of design, while, too often, shoddy engineering and manufacturing lay underneath.

To design students who were members of the baby-boom influx (and outflow) at universities in the 70s, major corporations and de-humanizing devices like computers were evil. None of this big-business stuff, including the way the majority of companies used design, was positive. Quality in everything, it seemed, was lacking. Much of the design profession was relegated to serving as a shill for marketing purposes. As for design improving quality of life, addressing the needs of a wide range of people, or saving the world – most design professionals, it seemed, were content in their more narrowly defined role.

As with students in other fields, design students’ self-appointed mission was to change the world. We would figure out how to use design, our niche, to contribute. Design as practiced by corporations and most consultancies, was in our minds, archaic. A focus on superficial aspects of design was an easy sell to marketing groups, but a sad commentary on the understanding of the power of design. Our thought by 1980, just a few years of college, was to start a design collaborative that focused on people, not things. While risky to start a business from scratch, it certainly seemed a better alternative to getting a job.

Early on, when obtaining work from clients we were rightfully cynical of many of the project briefs we were handed, and many of the views and attitudes coming from companies that were seeking us out for “design help.” The student culture clash had, by 1980, evolved from university level to business. We just didn’t believe that the “perfect scenarios” our potential clients described to us about people and their lifestyles were based on reality. Most were lacking any form of altruistic goals that would use design to contribute to the quality of life. A desire for a quick sale was more typical.
 In one instance we literally had a client say to us, after we pointed out a defect in a design they were considering, that “she won’t figure that out that problem till she gets it home.” It was a sentence we would jokingly repeat for months afterward. Such was the attitude that typified many at the time.

Working against this mindset we undertook an even more difficult “upward sell” to explain that, in design, we can’t just think about an oversimplified, homogenized description of an “average” person. Not everyone is 18-to-34 years old, in perfect physical shape, or willing or able to adapt to poorly designed products. With the attitude that design is only applied as a final step after all else is done, it wasn’t easy to get in early, or to secure a budget that would allow our design team to have a meaningful impact.

So, with this background in mind, in a series of upcoming blogs I will be discussing a number of related issues, including how design has evolved over the years, and how (in some ways) it still may be stuck in he past. However, where there are problems, there are opportunities. These include the ongoing move from products as the focus of design, to people. I’ll point out also, that while intentions are generally more positive than in the past, many companies are finding it difficult to move beyond methods of product development that by now can be considered obsolete.

Smart Design, 1982

Photo: Smart Design Founding Team, 1982.
Daniel Formosa, Ph.D., is a consultant in product design and research, and a founding member of Smart Design in New York City. Dan’s education includes design, ergonomics and biomechanics. He has received numerous design awards and his work has been selected for national and international exhibits.
Dan was a member of the design team that developed IBM’s first personal computer, OXO Good Grips kitchen tools and XM Satellite Radio. His work has been included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Dan recently worked with Ford to develop SmartGauge, an instrument cluster for Ford’s 2010 hybrid cars designed to influence driving behavior and save fuel – an innovation for the auto industry.

In addition to his design work he lectures worldwide on the physical, social and emotional aspects of design and innovation. Dan also recently co-authored and illustrated the book Baseball Field Guide, employing principles of information designed to explain the intricate, vague and confusing rules of Major League Baseball.

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