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Cast aside practicality, function and pragmatism – and think happy. The secret of great design in the 21st century is its ability to make the consumer happy
|Those are the insights of Alice Rawsthorn, design critic at the International Herald Tribune, who addressed home design devotees at the designEX conference in Sydney this week.
“Design is all about well-being,” Rawsthorn said. “It’s about empowering people and making them feel confident and able to negotiate life in the world around them. Design and happiness have always been interlinked – and bad design leads to unhappiness.”
Design and happiness: an historical disconnectHistorically, the emphasis with design has been on practicality. “Design has historically been a resourceful, intuitive response to a practical issue,” explained Rawsthorn.
She singled out early 20th century Danish designer Arne Jacobsen’s soup spoon. “Jacobsen was a rationalist,” said Rawsthorn. “He worked out the minimum amount of material needed. It’s exactly the right size and it’s a brilliant example of form follows function. But it’s not designed in joyful terms, it’s designed in terms of practicality.”
But, in today’s world, we seek more from design – we crave meaning and sensuality, as well as the practical function.
The non-negotiables of good design
According to Rawsthorn, there are three non-negotiable components of good design and, without them, a design project is not successful.
• Function. The bottom line of design is that unless it fulfils its function, it cannot be well designed.
• Conscience. If a design gives us cause for concern in any way, ethically or environmentally, it cannot be well designed and it cannot make us happy.
• Integrity. A good design project will be used in good conscience through every stage of its life. An example of where this went wrong is when UK supermarket Morrisons tried to score eco points by packaging bananas with biodegradable packaging – but what is the point of packaging a banana?
On top of this, Rawsthorn argued, an optional element of good design is beauty.
How design can lead to happiness
Rawsthorn discussed Dutch designer Hella Jongerius, who deliberately uses unexpected mixtures of materials and techniques in her designs.
“Her projects are conceptually very powerful and there is also something very joyful about her work,” said Rawstorn.
Jongerius’ Polder Sofa, for example, is one of the best selling sofas in the design end of the market in recent years. “It’s an impeccably designed sofa, with mis-matched buttons and fabrics. Everything about it tells us it’s a lovely old sofa that we’ve used for years – and yet it’s not. Hella injects a human sense into her work, giving us a real sense of happiness, even though her pieces are mass-manufactured.”
American double amputee Aimee Mullins was also chosen by Rawsthorn as an example of how happiness is important to good design. Mullins worked with designers to create different prosthetics for different uses – sports, everyday, evenings, etc – and went on become not only the first American amputee to compete in collegiate sports but a career in acting and modelling.
“Aimee is a wonderful example of an individual whose life could have been very limited and unhappy if she hadn’t taken charge,” said Rawsthorn. “She has become what she calls ‘super-abled’ rather than disabled. That’s a great example of how good design can being happiness.”
Good design: practical and fun
Ultimately, Rawsthorn argued, great design occurs when products balance the serious with the playful.
“However playful, joyful and stylish projects are, unless they work and are efficient, organised and environmentally responsible, they can’t lead to happiness.”