Star struck

Paul Epp

Designers overly impressed with their work?

Many years ago, back in the first century BC, the architect and author Vitruvius laid out the objectives for good architecture. His rules can reasonably be applied to design and they have weathered well: Firmitas (stability), Utilitas (usefulness) and Venustas (attractiveness). The things we make, whether buildings, chairs or shoes, ought to do the job they are intended to do and to look good while doing it. No arguments there. In the intervening 2,000 years though, we seem to have modified these rules and replaced stability, with its suggestion of permanence, with ‘price appropriateness’ (no Latin translation).

That change may not be totally to our long-term advantage, but it’s still a neat trifecta.

There is room for discussion, however, over what constitutes these values. If we question usefulness, which seems to be the most obvious, we might ask ‘useful to whom’, and to what end? The user of the artifact (or building) might seem to be the most appropriate answer. Why, then, do we have some buildings (and chairs) that are practically useless? I am thinking here in particular of the work of Daniel Libeskind of Toronto’s ROM fame, and the late Zaha Hadid as well as other “starchitects.” They have delivered buildings of great visual appeal, but which are a definite challenge to use. This phenomenon includes famous designers as well, who design striking objects that fail to do what they seem to imply they do. How does that happen?

One major factor that influences usefulness is whether we are talking about things in the public domain or in the private. The kinds of major buildings that starchitects do are usually considered public spaces, regardless of their ownership. In the public sphere, the user rarely has a say in the chain of decisions. Consumers vote with their feet or their wallet. If they don’t like it, they don’t buy it, or they stay away. But if the building or institution is public, the choice isn’t so easy. In these cases, the decision-makers are likely to be powerful people, well situated to impose their will and /or flatter their own vanity. But being powerful doesn’t automatically make you smart about design.

In the private sphere, which is most of it, we consumers either buy or we don’t. It would seem that this choice makes us powerful and the market would respond by offering us the choices that will allow us to make the smartest decision. Although our choices are immense in comparison to parts of the less developed world, this system doesn’t automatically deliver good goods, as we all have discovered, usually at the least opportune time.

Once again, the decisions that determine what is made and thereby what the market consists of may not be so smart about design either. One of the characteristics of being smart about something, like business (or politics, or academics) is that it often leads a person to think they are smart about (almost) everything. In the absence of a challenge, (and who will contest a powerful person?), the dominant continue to dominate.

It’s easy to understand why many famous architects and designers treat the eventual users of their designs with such disrespect: it works. By designing spectacular things (things that are a spectacle), the decision makers are seduced into making questionable choices. Not understanding design, or respecting its insights, they are swept away by the charms of the facile and superficial, and better access to a gullible press. Pity.

Here I’m going to make a plug for design training. If one is devoted to learning a craft, or a discipline, which design definitely is, the road taken usually leads to a set of similar conclusions. It seems that there is a sort of convergence that occurs.

Intelligence diligently applied to problems will often lead to similar conclusions, regardless of who the student is. This is as true of fly-fishing and drywall application as it is of any other field of study. This learning can take place in a school or out of one and the outcomes are usually indistinguishable. Schooling suits some better than others, but there is no substitute for the amount of time, effort and attention required. If you learn design, you learn something valuable and useful.

None are better suited or equipped to fulfill Vitruvius’s conditions.

Paul Epp is an adjunct professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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