I’ve written numerous posts about design and how it’s defined, but I wanted to share the two questions I ask myself (as well as my students) when starting a design:
1) What problem does it solve?
If the design doesn’t solve a problem, then it’s art. (Art does have a purpose, but solving problems isn’t one of them.) If it doesn’t solve a problem, then why would anyone want to buy your design?
2) How is it better than anything else out there?
Design shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. If you spend time coming up with a design and someone has already done it better than you, then why would anyone want to buy your design?
People buy problem solvers, whether it’s an energy-efficient home, or a music player that fits in your pocket, or a car that efficiently makes doughnuts in the Dairy Queen parking lot. Making money isn’t necessarily a measuring stick for the success of a design, but a great design is something that people should be buying.
Answer those two questions, and then the only thing you need to worry about is your marketing.
In an earlier post titled Quality as a Means to Sustainability I touched on the topic of design being either art or fashion, essentially stating that fashion is more of a current fad whereas art is enduring and timeless. But is art also current? And how do you create something that’s timeless?
So from this question I began to delve into what makes a timeless design, whether it be the design of buildings or the design of anything else. I was recently checking out my son’s Hot Wheel collection, and I noticed how some of the cars are considered classics (such as the ’61 Jaguar E-Type and the ’64 Mustang) while others were not very classic at all (’98 Ford F-150 and ’06 Volvo Wagon). But besides the good classic cars that most anyone would love to have parked in his or her garage there are also the bad classics such as the AMC Pacer and Ford Pinto. So I began to realize that classic is not defined by being good and appreciated, but rather, like a punchline to a joke, a classic entails a universal understanding that everyone agrees to be the truth. I seriously doubt that anyone would consider the Ford Pinto as the epitome of automotive technology. No, the Ford Pinto is more often used as the butt of any joke involving a vehicle exploding.
But something else I noticed about these classic cars (both good and bad) is that they were indeed dated, meaning that these cars were designed with current trends in mind. You can look at most of these classic cars and know almost exactly what year the cars were built. Every era in automotive design has design trends that make it unique from other eras, and there are a handful of signature vehicles (again, both good and bad) that typify those eras. The original American muscle cars were the signature cars of the late 1960’s while the 50’s will be remembered for cars with tail fins. When most people see a ’57 Chevy they don’t confuse it with something built in the early 1990’s.
I’m realizing that art and fashion are both born from current trends, but the major difference is originality. The early 80’s Volkswagen Rabbit was a squarish car that became popular due to people becoming more conscience about fuel economy. It was the original boxy hatchback, and for that it retains a place in automotive history. But the same honor would not be bestowed upon the cars like the Plymouth Horizon that were created for the purpose of chasing a trend and essentially not adding to the evolutionary process of creating something better.
The goal of creating something that’s timeless is the wrong strategy for creating something that’s timeless. Originality, whether it be revolutionary or evolutionary, seems to be the trait that creates timelessness. But originality is created from a reaction to what is currently going on, be it an improvement to something that currently works or a change in direction for something that currently doesn’t work. We can only change our current condition – the past has already happened, and the future is a byproduct of our present. No one knows what the future holds for us, so how would we know what people in the future will appreciate and admire?
Be truthful to the present and be original. Let the future decide if your horse is more like a Mustang or a Pinto.
I am just wrapping up with reading Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouninard, and I have to admit that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the book. Mr. Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company that has been talking the talk and walking the walk about sustainable practices.
There was one particular topic in this book that caught my interest that I don’t think gets enough credit when people discuss the attributes of sustainability, and that’s the concept of Quality. Our American way of life is predicated on an endless loop of consuming and disposing of goods. People make things, people buy things, people throw away things, and then people make more things for people to buy. This loop has created many jobs and services related to those things, as well as jobs related for promoting those things and making people believe they need them. These goods were designed to be disposed, because if they were made to last then why would people buy more of them? If you’re car came with life-time tires would you ever need to buy another set of tires again? If you’re computer could easily be upgraded as required for new technologies would you ever buy a new computer?