2x4

Hosted By:

2x4

Partners Susan Sellers, Michael Rock, & Georgianna Stout

Oct 4

2010

At a recent studio critique, Bernard Tschumi asked his students to articulate a distinction between "What it looks like and what it does." This seems like an essential dichotomy facing us now in an era of hyper-branding and public relations that demands every design has a neatly packaged story and clearly legible "inspiration." (Think: "Freedom Tower" with its functionally-useless but symbolically loaded-height of 1776 ft.) For every design, a metaphor.

In your opinion, has "what it looks like" and "what it means" replaced "what it does" as the dominant driver of design?


Terri gave the final word

It seems that iconic design — design driven by signs, metaphors, and meaning — is what’s most easily sold to news media and a general public that reacts emotionally to sensational stories. Just because this trend is spotlighted and designers have picked up on more “effective” ways to sell their products, however, doesn’t mean the end of function in its more literal meaning. Function (use, social purpose) and emotion (happiness, convenience, etc) still play essential roles in the “what it does” part of design — and perhaps can’t ever be separated. It seems like “what it does” is still an essential starting point more often than not for design, whether it shows up on design blogs or not. We are still making clothing, chairs, buildings, and cities, they just look a little different and often do more. Maybe what it comes down to is a general public that is more aware of signs, symbols, and the meaning of things.

Wednesday, October 6 at 12:57pm

jimmeredith

Jim Meredith

Strategy Design | Design Strategy

If “what it does” is an expression of function, perhaps. If, however, “what it does” is an embodiment of values of social purpose, relevancy and beneficial impact, it seems that “what it does” may be resurgent as the dominant driver of design.

Monday, October 4 at 5:50pm

drepucci

Demian Repucci

Creative consultant, innovator, designer

As someone who has gone through architectural education your question brings back memories. Painful memories (hahaha). Actually it also reminds me of the Louis Kahn quote, “…and you say to Brick, ‘What do you want Brick?’ And Brick says to you ‘I like an Arch…” I must admit that I seem to remember this quote of mythical stature more like: “When you ask a brick what it wants to be, it wants to be an arch”. Or something like that. Anyway, I think his point had something to do with allowing materials to be used in a way that is true to their properties. Which, now that I think about it would lead me to think that the best expression of a brick would be a wall. Sorry Louis.
What also comes to mind is the ‘form follows function’ principal of modern architecture which was first coined by Louis Sullivan in 1896. In reality this principal has always seemed to be an ideal with which to initiate a design concept and then diverge from at some point along the developmental path. Of course different designers would uphold or refute this to varying degrees, and someone would inevitably wax poetic about the importance of ornament… but the ‘form follows function’ concept is always somewhere in the mix.
I think that Mr. Tschumi’s question may in some way stem from this tradition of dialogue. I would like to learn more about his intentions in asking the question but maybe that is for another discussion.
My time has run out but I will pick this up again with a few more thoughts in the next couple hours. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 5 at 7:46pm

drepucci

Demian Repucci

Creative consultant, innovator, designer

The question is an interesting one… that, the more I think about, is maybe answered in degrees. Meaning that every designed object is a product of a combination of, or the tension between, these three drivers.
An obvious example to consider is the original iPod. Its ‘looks’ were designed with careful consideration to not only reinforce Apple’s brand identity but also move it forward. ‘What it means’ was answered in that having the iPod meant that you were independent, untethered and could personalize your entire daily life with your own unique soundtrack if you wanted. A transformative device if you will. The iPod managed the rare feat of saying about it’s owner both that you were part of a community (hip, design conscious, tech savvy, Apple user) and also an independent free spirit on the go. A bit of complexity, however, must have found its way into the design process because the iPod ‘does’ what it does fairly well. The rounded corner rectangular shape fit into a pocket or bag pretty easily. The scroll wheel and single button were simple and easy to use. We will skip the issue of the battery for the moment and just say that the iPod was also designed with ‘what it does’ very much in mind.
So could it is a combination of all three?
But is every object as thoroughly designed as the iPod? Probably not. So maybe the balance between these design drivers shifts based on the programmatic situation at hand?
Another example that comes to mind is the ‘Moneymaker’ Pump that IDEO designed for Kickstart http://www.ideo.com/work/featured/kickstart
The interesting thing to me here is that as basic as the pump is, it was definitely designed. IDEO considered many things such as the simplicity of moving parts, its cost, availability of service and repair resources, the length of stroke in the step, etc. ‘What it looks like’ is very much a product of ‘what it does’. The interesting thing to me is that I think ‘what it means’ was not so much designed into it but has become more of a product of it. ‘What it means’ is that when used, the ‘Moneymaker’ pump creates usable land, creates crops, creates water availability, creates possibilities for income, etc. The ‘Moneymaker’ pump means wealth and stability for its owners. Pretty impressive. But was its meaning designed into it from the beginning? Maybe not in so many words.
Maybe I am not answering the question directly but I think that it is interesting to consider the relationship between these important design drivers and how their proportional combinations affect design thinking and design solutions.
Thanks for the conversation!

Wednesday, October 6 at 11:43am

Terri gave the Final Word

It seems that iconic design — design driven by signs, metaphors, and meaning — is what’s most easily sold to news media and a general public that reacts emotionally to sensational stories. Just because this trend is spotlighted and designers have picked up on more “effective” ways to sell their products, however, doesn’t mean the end of function in its more literal meaning. Function (use, social purpose) and emotion (happiness, convenience, etc) still play essential roles in the “what it does” part of design — and perhaps can’t ever be separated. It seems like “what it does” is still an essential starting point more often than not for design, whether it shows up on design blogs or not. We are still making clothing, chairs, buildings, and cities, they just look a little different and often do more. Maybe what it comes down to is a general public that is more aware of signs, symbols, and the meaning of things.

Wednesday, October 6 at 12:57pm

manuelmiranda

Manuel Miranda

Designer

I think the three are interrelated. An object embodies the values of the systems of which it is a component, and users exercise their economic citizenship by participating in the ideology inherent in the objects they purchase. Meaning, surface quality, and function of the object are all part of this because the object is a conduit between the consumer and the value system (or brand), and what passes back and forth through the object is promise and loyalty. The iPod is a good example of this. It’s a covetable, status-communicating object that promises convenient personal access to media but also through whose usage one participates in a specific world view.

The simplicity of its appearance and ease of its functionality make the iPod desirable and a signifier of taste on the part of its creator as well as those who purchase one. Its technology delivers on its promise of access to the point which recorded music is no longer an object to own but rather an option to be selected. But the technology also supports specific economic and distribution models (and thus an ideology about ownership and access).

The iPod’s price point combined with the closed distribution system of its content make it not only culturally exclusive, but economically exclusive as well. Use of the iPod goes beyond its intimate and solitary use to a larger participation in a unidirectional distribution model (the iTunes store) that determines a specific way of purchasing and consuming media. This closed system is further exemplified by the App Store, a subset of the iTunes store, wherein access to a market is defined by a private entity and not a public one. Ironically, the collection of media files within an iPod is called a ‘library’, but the iPod embodies an opposite set of values to that type of public space: its content is privately owned rather than publicly shared, its use is an individual experience rather than communal, its appearance is sleek and confident rather than shabby and underfunded.

So, to go back to the question, I think ‘what it does’, in successful designs, is a dominant driver, but I think its function can be considered at a number of scales. ‘What it does’ exists not only on a single-user, utilitarian level, but also on economic, ideological, cultural, and psychological levels.

Thursday, October 7 at 3:12am

lukaszkrupinski

lukasz krupinski

communication & project coordinator

I think everything really is relative:
1. From the perspective of an architect working in Poland “what it looks like” replaced “what it means” and “what it does” a long time ago with no signs of returning. Especially when “what it does” and “what it means” means what it does and means in general – to the world that surrounds us – how it shapes it and how it is positioned as a solution to certain problems – physical, social or psychological. I guess treating architect as shallow as looks only is called “Bilbao effect”…
2. From the perspective of a person who creates brands in Poland “what it means” replaced “what it does” and “what it looks like”. According to the rule: http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html
3. From the perspective of a person who travels a lot for different design festivals “what it does” is still dominant over “what it looks like” and “what it means”. With no brand context, young designers have no idea what the Rossiter-Percy grid is to take care of a proper meaning… ;) But their design mostly does very specific things in smart ways ;)

Thursday, October 7 at 4:11pm