Thinking about Design
Are we locked in a global misunderstanding?
A brief outline of the history of the shape of the robotic mower: The first fully automated robotic mower came from Sweden and was offered on the European market by the company Husqvarna in 1994 for 5,500 DM. With a flat oval solar panel and a barely visible drive, the mower looked like an insect and mowed across meadows according to the principle "cut little, but cut more often". A principle copied from nature and the grazing – a hopeful concept for the harmony of technology and nature. According to the manufacturer, this principle can still be found in the design language today.
In the early and late 2000s, the design language of the robotic lawnmower evolved in the direction of household robots, for example hoovers. The robotic lawnmower became part of the household appliance family. And you could see that. The Robomow RT700, for example, looked so cute, as if a family had designed it at the breakfast table.
Now, in the mid-2010s, there was a turnaround. In the meantime, garden robots have arrived in all parts of the world and are specialised for green spaces of all sizes. Global companies, such as Bosch and Honda, got into the business. And it's hard not to observe the convergence of the industries in the design language as well: deep-set eyes, dynamic rear, protective armour and a front that could simply shovel away deers out of its way. Design Darwinism? The success of transportation design has now reached the domestic robot segment. And with it, apparently, also the SUV success concept.
Success concepts are contagious.
The market share of SUVs in Germany reached currently 29 percent (KBA) and solves some highly topical sales problems of the automotive industry. Neraly every new third car registered on German roads is a "Sport Utilization Vehicle”. Yet the SUV is not a special off-road product that has lost its way in the city. It is built for the city and the highway. And its concept for success seems to be contagious. Thus, by means of axle spreading, body elevation, expansion of the passenger compartment and significantly higher material consumption, iconic city and family vehicles of the early 2000s became family bunkers. Examples: Toyota Crown, Fiat 500 4x4 or Smart #1 and many more.
The SUV promises the romantic idea of the off-road vehicle used to conquer deserts, plough swamps, wade fords, navigate jungles and - not least - fight wars. The best-known ancestor of the SUV, the jeep, is of military origin and not a rural utility vehicle. It was built to ensure survival in rough terrain.
SUV = safety. Have we reached a consensus with a misunderstanding?
A currently popular thesis is that the use of an SUV in cities would be iconographically equivalent to the end of social solidarity. In terms of material, fuel and space consumption, some arguments can be found in favour of this thesis. A less lurid thesis says that the SUV is the return to access to nature. Paradoxical, but not improbable - because the longing for the rural and the desire for retreat makes us reach for the tools that are supposedly obvious for access. Snuff = Kleenex. Safety = Jeep. And no SUV bashing will help if in the collective consciousness the rural and survival in it goes hand in hand with the off-road vehicle. It would not be the first time that consensus has been reached on a misunderstanding.
Desires becoming norms. Why is design actually involved in this?
Wishes and possibilities become norms and expectations. Where performance is almost equalised, design still makes the difference today. Design is one of the most powerful levers here. And where problems cannot be solved, such as the paradoxical need for a clean planet and at the same time for a large private vehicle, design is consulted for a solution. As a consequence, designers have to act in a paradoxical constellation between scalability, individualisation and responsibility.
Designers create mass products that at the same time contribute to the creation of individual identity.
Designers are usually busy packaging gradual changes and obvious contradictions as comfortably as possible for their users.
Things should not only be beautiful, but also good (says A. Reckwitz). This means that design has a claim to be visually pleasing and socially useful at the same time. Sometimes it might even make sense to do nothing at all.
The bottom line is that design today is the general discipline for design issues, which, in addition to criteria such as climate neutrality, ethically justifiable relationships with suppliers and the environment, must also allow for the formation and maintenance of habits as well as economic efficiency. The corset is so tight that there is actually no room for design.
What's the point of design at all if it's not allowed to do anything?
In 1998, Fiat introduced the Multipla model. Designed by Roberto Giolito, who was also responsible for the new edition of the Fiat 500 in 2007, the vehicle promised to provide an answer to the economic, ecological and social problems of the 21st century: suddenly there was room for six people in the space of a Fiat Punto, a 360-degree all-round view allowed maximum eye contact with the surroundings and the axles were so narrow that they allowed reverse parking in any medieval crypt. A mini-van as the answer to the question of the optimal space-use balance. A social invitation to solidarise the city, mobility and people. The design language so harmless and approachable, reminiscent of Kermit the Frog. And Fiat's impact so radical that the M.O.M.A. directly added a copy to their design collection.
Unfortunately, the Multipla was also so unsuccessful that Fiat decided to take the Multipla off the market after more than 10 years of being the shortlist leader of every design accident ranking. The Multipla simply did not appeal to the buyers of the time. Chief designer Roberto Giolito's design was derided. Upright seating and functionality, less Dolce Vita, but also less use of materials. A flop.
With the relaunch of the Fiat 500 in 2007, all attempts at solidarity seemed to be over again, and Fiat, once again focusing more on Dolce Vita, placed a public favourite with a retro relaunch (which, with the Fiat500 4x4, also provides an SUV variant for the city).
Can such a profound model decision be validated solely by sales figures? Is timing everything? What mission does design have at all if it does not also have a nudging effect?
What would have to happen? A naïve collection of thoughts.
Success indicators for design that track social impact
Design is always political. With every design decision, designers also indirectly make political decisions. What sets sales targets as a credo for success should increasingly also include social impact. In addition to new economic "success parameters" (see Annual Report 2022), this also requires parameters that represent positive changes in habits (e.g. number of vehicles per capita, share of individual transport compared to public transport, etc.).
Designers as activists and critics, not as service providers
Design is reflective and should aim to challenge the status quo. Design always has a self-centred interest in the problems of others. In the history of design as a bearer of enlightened and universalistic ideals, design has also always been a benevolently paternalistic practice. And the self-image of designers, architects and planners has cultivated a view of others to whom good should be done. For this, designers are asked more than ever to demand an attitude and a will to change where decisions for the good of the individual person have social and ecological consequences. Point 1, for example, could also help to put more emphasis behind design decisions in a scale-oriented corporate context.
Solutions for society comes from its extremes, not only it's middle
Without design alternatives, there is no design discourse. Discourse can only thrive if the mass of ordinary citizens really have the opportunity to participate in it through real alternatives. We design better when we approach issues via the extreme points of a society instead of conforming to an average grey mass. For this, design must also locate itself in the extremes and offer visible counter-designs to a mainstream.
Evolution simply takes time.
Rethinking takes time. And radical changes probably need more than a decade to reach social consensus. It took us about 3 years to understand that a smartphone without a keyboard makes more sense because the advantage of a larger display obviously outweighs the disadvantages. How long will it take us to learn that it makes sense to accept a supposed restriction of comfort because the ecological advantage absolutely outweighs it? Probably longer than two product development cycles (about 10 years).
Make norms out of attitudes. Not from needs.
I want a design that solves real customer problems instead of glossing them over. Because good design is smarter than its users and creates real education at the most important interface of our external world: Not usability and pleasantness of use, but on values, norms and routines. By design promoting diversity in civilisation, by mapping diversity and making it accessible. By giving design a mandate to work through social strata again, instead of focusing on a liquid middle class of buyers. People, like things, are also a product of social discourses and practices of their respective times. And as we create things, they will also make and influence us. So if the positive social benefit contributes at least equally to the sales figures of a product's success, the knot would be loosened for the first time, wouldn't it?
January 2nd, 2023 (AW)