The phrase “good design” is often used when a product is examined and representative of a certain criterion. However, the criterion to which objects are made to fit is wholly subjective and dependent on the time period in which the object was created. Design is constantly changing to fit the needs of an equally evolving society. Subsequently, “good design” is a phrase incapable of permanence and, thus, shouldn’t be the final goal of the designer but, rather, experimentation for the sake of progress. By examining exhibitions, design theories, and awards given for design, this essay aims to show how the labeling, imitation, and persistent belief of something as “good design” is elitist, ultimately thwarting such progress.
In 1951, the Museum of Modern Art held what would become an ongoing exhibition led by Edgar Kauffman Jr., appropriately entitled Good Design. Its focus was primarily on displaying well designed household objects and appliances that were both affordable and widely available to the public. The exhibition was successful in that it integrated the common household with well crafted products, allowing families to understand what constituted “good design”. Where it has received criticism, however, lies in the supposed bias in the selection of objects carried out by Kauffman and his appointed jury. The jury, all of whom were Modernists, have been criticized as having a similar agenda – that agenda being the promotion of Modernism through the exhibition of objects deemed “good design”, in hopes of molding the public’s opinions to their benefit. Their intentions are further evocative of elitism in design critic, Peter Hall’s article A Good Argument, described as a “Modernist aesthetic rampage against ornament and historicist styles.”(1) The Modern movement called for a universal style embracing simplicity, clarity, and truth to the materials used. While the objects displayed in MoMA’s Good Design did just that, their designs aspiring to provide solutions to a set notion of problems, it is the material which was used and the challenges they aimed to solve that dates them, possibly relieving them of their “good design” entitlement that served as a “stamp of approval that bestowed a suggestion of timelessness.”(2) This is evident in Hall’s summary of the material used in the majority of objects put on display as he writes, “Who would have known in 1950 that we’d be recycling plastic, eliminating chrome plating, and singing the praises of urban density.”(3) Hall goes on to argue that every design is an argument in itself – its value determined by the strength of that argument and the assumption on which it rests.(4) An example of such a work is Ettore Sottsass’ Carlton bookshelf. The bookshelf is an argument against the norm of what a bookshelf should resemble and while it is capable of holding one’s collection of novels, the design elicits a response from the user as they approach and interact with it. It is an example of a design that challenged pre-existing notions of “good design”, belonging to the Postmodern era – a direct response and counter movement to Modernism and the objects that would have been selected by Kauffman and his peers. This Modernist agenda hinted to be enforced by Kauffman and his jury is as timeless as the objects exhibited in Good Design. This is beautifully summarized by Jeffrey L. Meikle in his publication Design in the USA. “After Kaufmann left in 1955, the museum renounced reform – a sign of recognition that it had lost its bid to shape the taste of the nation – in favor of a permanent collection exhibiting timeless aesthetic quality.”(5)
Movements and theories have formed throughout the history of design setting a structure of beliefs in how and why objects should be designed and what they should convey. Dieter Rams, an influential designer whose work has been imitated since he began in 1955, used the phrase “good design” to set a foundation which he believes designers should follow in order to be successful. These are known as Rams’ ten principles of “good design”. Of these ten principles include “good design is honest” and “good design is as little design as possible”, mentioned in his article Omit the Unimportant. These are evocative of the Modernist belief that ornamentation is crime, further described in the article by Rams when he writes, “Complicated, unnecessary forms are nothing more than designers’ escapades that function as self-expression instead of expressing the product’s functions. The reason is often that design is used to gain a superficial redundancy.”(6) Rams has stated that Apple Inc. is the only company to date that consider every principle of design in the creation of their products(7)– and few can argue against the success of Apple in the past decade. There are, however, cases in which ornamentation has served to strengthen both the functionalism and form of that which is designed, such as the construction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building in 1957. In the formation of the building, Mies thought the structural elements should be visible, serving to exhibit how the skyscraper defiantly stands as a monument to feats accomplished. Unfortunately, his original design in which the steel frame was exposed entirely did not meet the requirements of American building codes at the time. Thus, instead of neglecting his original intent and conforming to what has been labeled by both Modernists and Dieter Rams as “good design”, Mies decided on ornamentation to shed light on the structural integrity and formation of the Seagram building. He did this by implementing vertical I-beams, colored bronze, to bring attention to the verticality of the structure. Because of the addition of these I-beams, the Seagram building broke ground in its design as it was the first skyscraper to use a vertical truss bracing system, the first skyscraper to combine a braced frame with a moment frame, and the first skyscraper to use high strength bolted connections – all of which are now commonplace in the architectural design today.(8)
Something designers should note in the creation of an object or product is that all designs have a shelf life regardless of how much praise they receive – how much they are referred to as “good design”. The shelf life itself is dependent on how well the design supports the function, but its eventual retirement, like hit sitcoms in syndication, is inevitable. An example of such a design is the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde commercial jet, flown in the United Kingdom. Every parameter of its design was conceived using, to the fullest extent, the materials and technology available at the time. The Concorde was capable of speeds recorded at 1,350 mph using four turbojet engines.(9a) Its aluminum body was light, which helped reduce resistance, further increasing speed.(9b) The jet was the first to implement fly-by-wire technology, otherwise known as auto-pilot.(9c) It is because of these feats, among others, that the jet served as personal transport for Queen Elizabeth II and was awarded “Top Icon of the United Kingdom in the 20th Century” by BBC and London’s Design Museum, placing just above Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground.(10) The original Concorde was used for 27 years before it too reached a point in which its design, as well as it was built, became obsolete. The reasons for the Concorde’s retirement centered mainly around the fact that it was no longer economically responsible in that the amount of passengers it could carry did not suffice for the amount of money it required for a single flight. This, coupled with a tragedy that occurred in 2000 in which a Concorde jet combusted and crashed into a hotel, causing 113 casualties (the only recorded crash during its service), that ended what was celebrated by many as “good design”. The original design of the Concorde served its purpose however, and an even more aptly constructed jets, pulling from its original design, are rumored to be in the works.
Supported by these examples, we can conclude that there is no “end-all, be-all” solution to any design endeavor. There are a multitude of different beliefs and processes one adheres to and implements in attempting to solve a problem. These beliefs and processes change, over time, as technology develops. Likewise, “good design” is a subjective term, vulnerable to the uncertainty of the future.
1. Peter Hall, “A Good Argument”, Metropolis (March, 2009): p.73
2. Peter Hall, “A Good Argument”, Metropolis (March, 2009): p.75
3. Peter Hall, “A Good Argument”, Metropolis (March, 2009): p.75
4. Peter Hall, “A Good Argument”, Metropolis (March, 2009): p.75
5. Jeffery L. Meikle, Design in the USA, Oxford University Press, USA, July, 2005: p.150
6. Deiter Rams, “Omit the Unimportant”, Design Issues 1:1, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Spring 1984): p.25
7. Objectified, Dir. Gary Hustwit, Swiss Dots Production, March 14, 2009