Designing in a Barren Wasteland

Is Ireland a prosperous, culture-rich environment for aspiring designers to build their trade in? An interesting question, I think. My answer would undoubtedly be no.

In our little design culture class, we had an exercise to try to discover some of the things that best describes Ireland as a whole. These are the characteristics that give life to life in this country; they are our culture. Such aspects as religion, the catholic church and priesthood were familiar themes. We seem to be forever bound to this sense that we owe the church everything, that the priest controls our family’s perspective and that we should always feel the harsh guilt set upon us by the church. Other cultural amenities include the pub, drinking culture, laziness and the idea of “sure feck it, we’ll be grand”. Unfortunately it is a mentality that stains our existence. We are bred on a life surrounding a pub, where aspirations of a decent night out revolve around getting shit-faced and puking in a bin on O’ Connell street. The main influence that makes us Irish is our humour, or rather our racist-humour. It spreads from the casually racist grandfathers and grandmothers who would think nothing of their words to the destructive and hateful views held by young people who don’t fully understand the others they insult. We like to pass it off as humour, as ‘banter’ but it is very, very racist in nature.

Catholicism makes a slave of us all

You may be wondering what all this has to do with design. Well I firmly believe that it is the culture and the influences of a society that greatly determine the people who will rise to the top of their respective piles. Unfortunately the spread in Ireland is turning sour. People, and in particular designers, can only make it happen for themselves.  They can only find themselves in the world if they can manage to get themselves out of our own little-minded world. We, as a nation, put ourselves down too much. We undersell ourselves, then give our lives to work and the church, and we only reward ourselves with narrow communal sports and binge drinking in a local pub. The train that is leaving for the future? Yeah, we’ve missed that.

Philip Treacy Collection

And so I feel only the designers that get out make the best of what they have. They move to more accepting cultures, more aspirational environments like New York, Tokyo, London, Paris and Los Angeles. One such example of what I am getting at is fashion designer Philip Treacy. For those that don’t know, Philip Treacy specialises in hats. Extravagant hats. He has designed sculptural masterpieces to sit atop the heads of Lady Gaga, Sarah Jessica Parker and Princess Beatrice. 36 hats designed by him were worn at the British Royal wedding of Will and Kate last year. That’s an astonishing number when you consider how high a profile event this was. He started in Galway. He lived in a house with seven brothers and sisters and made gimmicky hats to pass the time. But at one stage he said enough was enough, packed his bags for London, sold himself as a brand and made it big.

Philip Treacy's Designs for the British Royal Wedding

To reinforce the idea of getting out, my chosen designer was Cedric D. Gibbons. An altogether unfamiliar name, no doubt. But just look at the statuette and its clear to see the impact he has made. He started in Ireland too. He lived in Dublin and moved to Los Angeles to let himself prosper. He finished his acting career with 11 Oscar wins (second only behind Walt Disney with 26) and was an original chair-member on the panel for the Academy of Motion Pictures. He designed the trophy that every actor in the world aspires to win. That is some achievement.

Oscar Statuettes

Cedric D. Gibbons Design

And my whole point is that Gibbons, like Treacy, got out. They got out of this rotting wasteland and went someplace where their talents, abilities and aspirations could flourish. And unfortunately for most of Ireland now, especially designers, we too will have to look elsewhere to make a decent hash of our lives.

Hacking away at Limerick City

I’ll reiterate here what I said I liked about this module at the beginning of the semester; it isn’t predictable, it keeps you on you toes and it challenges you. All of these criterion were included in our “Design the City” task for week 4. We were taken into Limerick city, away from the comforts of the studio, away from the handy tools, the layout pads, the pens, the papers and the people we know. So yeah, that kept things interesting and got us thinking on our feet. The whole point of our excursion was to study the environment, take in the locals, the structure of the places, evaluate what’s there and what’s not and come up with a solution for whatever we find.

Chicago's "The Bean"

Countless cities across the globe have sampled this culture of using what they already have on the landscape and simply making it better. It can be a complex set of circumstances that yields a design solution, or a minute change that alters the way the public sees something. An example of these is “The Bean” in Chicago’s Millenium Park. A highly reflective, highly polished metal structure in the shape of a bean which has drawn the attention of the public beautifully, as well as encouraged other aspiring designers to emulate its form and take the idea behind it a little further.

"Jelly Baby Family", Marble Arch, London

Some more fun examples that I’ve seen myself are “The Jelly Baby Family” set up in Marble Arch in central London. Simple, colourful, vibrant and a little bit of fun. I personally loved the idea that the city of Las Vegas, Nevada used for one of their hotel / casino complexes, The Stratosphere. Check out the video to see the 3 theme park rollercoasters they’ve shoved on top of a skyscraper….yep, skyscraper. It was such a fantastic experience and an incredible, exciting use of limited space in a city such as this.

A more interactive design hack for a city appeared in Barcelona a year or two ago. Granted it was part of a mobile network advert, but it still drew a crowd and showed great creativity. The designers took the popular (and by popular I mean extremely addictive) android game “Angry Birds” and scaled it up. It sat in the middle of a plaza in Barcelona and allowed great interaction between the oversized game and the community. I feel they are the best design solutions, the ones that can inspire and involve all.

Log / Bench

So for our design hack, we were given a small stretch of road and a riverbank walk on the outskirts of Limerick. I was kind of glad though, because every other team had a section of the concrete jungle, while we were the only group with a bit of scenery, some green. And we approached it in that manner by evoking the scenes of the city from afar. By the river we decided on installing benches that would fold away. When away, they looked like logs that would blend into the landscape and when open the allowed for comfort and relaxation. So from here we decided to make picture frames, or rather, kitchen windows in the trees that allowed the person relaxing to look out at the city. From differing angles the user would see different views of the city.

Elevated View of Scenario

View 1 from Benches

But we also had another idea, for joggers / runners / walkers. From the angle of their eye line (i.e. standing up and not sitting down) they would only see out into the river at close range. So why not give them something to look at too? A floating flower-bed was our solution. Connected to the land, they could just float around close to the bank and provide some beautiful scenery. A more interactive design solution to promote the city’s beauty from the outside. Like I said, I believe those are the best hacks, the ones that inspire and involve.

View 2 from Benches

Aerial View

This is a rubbish post

Last weeks class was pretty entertaining. I mean, usually when you hear a guest speaker is to come in and give you a talk for two hours that light in the brain automatically switches off. “I’ll coast this class”, few say it but many think it. However, the discussion we had with Dr. Renee Wever of TU Delft was very interesting. I’m calling it a discussion rather than a talk or a lecture as it never felt like he was talking down to us or spoon-feeding us any PC crap.

His degree is in sustainable packaging in design of products. More so, Renee is interested in influencing consumers and their littering habits through intelligent and sustainable packaging and design. One such example of the kind of products TU Delft are behind is the F-Hybrid Fuel Cell moped. We’re told it uses alternatives to batteries in the form of Hydrogen and Lithium-Ion cells. The product greatly reduces emissions, can certainly reach qualitative speeds as well as getting the consumer from A to B effectively.

Dr. Wever also had a couple of inside hints and tid-bits that definitely kept the discussion fresh. For instance, he talked about how certain car companies (Toyota, Ford) will preach to the high heavens about having one (singular) car model that is the epitome of green and eco-living. |t will reduce carbon footprints, improve capabilities, further the cars life and warranty, save you money and all this other crap. They say this so that they appear to have a “green” ethos, but behind closed doors the companies are already 95% of the way through production on their next top-of-line, gas-guzzling monstrosities known as SUV’s (plural). I agree wholeheartedly with Renee here, and i believe that appearance is everything in the fickle world of green living.

As the class wore on, Dr. Wever rejigged the whole class and formed groups of students together to brainstorm ideas. The ideas we were looking for, as we found out, were ways to alter a persons habits or behaviour through feedback and alterations in the landscape. We wanted to change someone’s (if only one) perception of cleanliness, litter and their green ethos. Behaviour adaptions proved most difficult; how do you alter someones habits without inducing fees or retaliation? Scripting seemed a better option. A good example of scripting is the speed bump. You, as a driver, don’t need to stop at them or even slow down, but the benefit doing so allows your suspension to take it easy and stay healthy.

So our idea was simple enough, reduce the size of layout pads used in our design modules to A3. This was purely for cyclists, and purely to encourage cycling around campus. If the layout pad sizes are reduced, it means the pads can now fit into a decent size ruck sack, which in turn allows for easier transportation when atop a bicycle. Instead of falling half off of a bike, while desperately clutching at the pad as well as the handle-bars, the pad can now fit in a bag that can sit neatly on your back. Boom! Job sorted kid.

Don’t let the truth get in the way

Storytelling is such an important aspect of our lives, one that is often overlooked or dismissed as a genuine trait of the Irish people. However, we just seem to have this incredible knack for telling a good tale. Whether it’s the simple story of Bridie telling her neighbours of that troublesome young lad down the street that “do be doin’ the drugs and what not”, or one of the countless yarns of the middle-aged generation telling us how Ireland nowadays is “gone to the dogs”. We love to tell an old wives tale or two, and the truth is not always the first port of call.

The Oscar-nominated short film, Granny O’ Grimm is a perfect example. The truth is supplemented for entertainment, the animals in the woods become the dreadful, winged, fire-breathing dragons of the old Fanmorth Forest and the left-behind grandmother becomes a fearsome and wicked witch to be reckoned with. And this exaggeration, it’s fantastic viewing! The stories are far more interesting, far more enjoyable, easy to imagine and easier to bend the truth.

Another fantastic example of excellence in storytelling, is the 1957 black and white film ’12 Angry Men’. Here is the case of a youth accused of murder; his trial consists of the eleven bigots that believe he did it and the one man who gave him a chance. The selling point of this film is that it is solely based in one room. The entirety of the film, in one room with diverse, strong characters and an increasingly poignant sense of storytelling. These were the days when the story was the key to selling whatever it is that needed to be sold.

For our class this week we concentrated on loosening up and getting the story to flow. Through interaction with other students, we sifted through ideas and ways of getting a story out. It was probably the most fun I’ve had (inside college hours) since I came back from the holidays. Not an ounce of truth to the yarns, but enjoyable and hilarious. We also had to sell our own product as an exercise. This was perfect, i had been taking in all this talk of adding a back story and a context, with characters and situation, adding all that to the products. I felt I could make my waste disposal project romantic (ambitious, i know). I had this whole tale of my girlfriend and I on the Costa Del Sol for a getaway picnic on the beach, the stars were out, the soothing sounds of the oceans swept through the night…and yet I had nowhere to throw my rubbish.

Waste Disposal Project

And as designers-in-the-making, this is a vital lesson that we ought to learn. A good story is sold on its characters, its context, plot, imagination, twists, and guile. A product is sold much in the same fashion. If you can tell the story of the product, its history, its place in society through imagery and intelligent composition, then there is no reason for your creation not to catch the eye of any manufacturer. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If you can make it tell a story then it is worth far more than that, especially to a designer.

What is Product Design?

Rarely do I get much enjoyment from mandatory college course modules, such is the disdain of trolling through Materials Processing and the inevitability of getting lost amongst the mish-mash of Technological Mathematics. However, this semester has offered a respite, Contemporary Design Culture to be exact. The reason I am developing a slight fondness for the module is that the students aren’t molly-coddled into a vague sense of passiveness, but are rather engaged thoroughly throughout the class.For instance, we are straight up asked simple questions. “What makes a good design?”, “What does a product designer do?” and “What is product design?“. Easy enough, right? It was very intiguing to see how little light was shed on these questions by the very students participating in the course. The last question garnered particularly blank stares from all, myself included, but I guess starting from scratch is all part of the learning curve. A statement is put forward, and the few who are brave enough share their views and encourage discussion. That’s what I like about this module, it’s direct. Us students are invoked into the arguement, the situations, the designs, the briefs and the beliefs. We are involved. We are beginning to think.

The part I enjoyed most however was the debate. Is product design art or engineering? Either, or. No middle ground. Persuasive arguements about aesthetics, style and fashion managed to sway opinions towards art, while discussions of function, performance and consistency pulled it back in engineering’s favour. I felt it was a good move on the part of the lecturer to get us up off our arses and get involved in the process, to open us up and have us thinking.

As regards the videos played on-screen, there were a few interesting observations for me. Designer Yves Behar of Switzerland talked of adding value to objects. “It is the value and experience that we put into the products that truly create the greater value. The value we bring can be about environmental issues, sustainability, low power consumption, function, beauty and business strategy“. I admire his views that a product becomes so much more when a thought process is put behind it. Long-lasting, functional products that don’t damage our world are the kind of product that are a neccesary in our lives.

Harvey Moscot also highlights quite brilliantly that the greatest products are the ones nobody thinks about. The ideas that have been there through the years, the ones that are ever-present in society such as varifocal glasses, the blazer and the t-shirt. Simplistic, original and timeless, these are the kinds of ideas we, as designers, should aspire to envisage.

The Classic

Moscot Glasses