Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Can Design Really be Altruistic?

I once read an interview with Ayn Rand where she described "The Fountainhead" as a tale of the altruist vs. the egoist. Altruistic behavior is defined as being unselfishly devoted to the welfare of others. Egoist behavior is exhibited by those who only care about themselves. I don't know what the percentages are, but I would guess that if you divide the general population into the two categories, most people would fall into the latter of the two. At first, I thought this was just a social commentary. People are selfish, end of story. However, the more I looked at the idea of altruism, I discovered that it's very difficult for Altruism to triumph over Capitalism. This became clear to me after reading a book by Karrie Jacobs describing her search for the perfect $100,000 house.

In the book the author travels over 14,000 miles across the United States to see if it is possible to buy the perfect little modern dream house anywhere in the United States for the total cost of $100,000. She seeks out the most interesting and innovative of the practicing architects available to her (Ms. Jacobs was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Dwell Magazine, so I'm sure she knows a few) and grills them all about the possibility of such a house. In most cases, the Architects are reluctant to guarantee that such a house could be built.

This whole thing got me thinking: Let's say you could build a 1,000 SF modern house for $100,000. And let's say it even looks cool and holds up pretty well to the usual wear and tear. And let's say you got it published in a magazine because you did such a good job that you wanted everyone to see your inexpensive house. What would happen?

If I had to guess, I'd say that the price would skyrocket as soon as your phone could stop ringing. While the initial idea of designing an affordable modern house has real altruistic merit, the reality is that demand would drive the price up. Does anyone remember the arrival of the Mini Cooper? When they started selling Mini Coopers in the US, they were advertising the car around $17,000. As soon as the waiting list got to be more than two months, they jacked up the price in order to quell demand a little. Today, a new Mini Cooper will set you back almost double the initial offering price.

Often in history, Design tries to solve a problem affordably, and succeeds. Look at the Eames Bent Plywood chair. Designed as a modern affordable furniture solution, the Eames Bent Plywood Chair was made in the USA and well within the reach of the average American when it was introduced. Today, a chair like that can run as much as $1,000 per chair. The same is true of the Emeco Navy Chair. Designed of aluminum (steel was hard to come by) these chairs were supposed to be indestructible and affordable so that the military could deploy them all over the world. Today, a simple aluminum chair like that will set you back quite a few Benjamins.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that as a Designer, you may have the best of intentions. You may want to design something affordable and cool. But if you succeed in making something cool, people will covet it and then Capitalism kicks in. Because of Capitalism, I believe it is very hard for anyone to really produce Altruistic design. Even if you do it because you have a ton of money, the work will still not get to the intended recipient.

Let me give you a final example. Let's say a hot musical act wants to put on a show, but they want the tickets to be affordable and they don't want them to be scalped. Let's say the only way to get these tickets is to wait in line the day of the show. The band feels good about this plan because they want the real fans to be the beneficiaries of their generous gift. Unfortunately, what would end up happening is that people would be renting themselves out to stand in line for the wealthier people who want to go but don't want to wait in line. I've seen it happen. That's Capitalism for you.

In conclusion, I don't want to stop you from Designing the world's next needed thing. I would just like to suggest that if you truly have altruistic intentions for a design project, then perhaps you might be better off charging what the market will bear and then giving the proceeds to charity. At least then you know that the beneficiaries of your efforts will be of your own choosing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Are you a Designer in search of inspiration? Look behind you.

We've all been there. Faced with a new assignment, you sit there staring at a blank page (or screen) wondering where to begin. You want to create something really great but don't know where to start. Too many times you've had a great idea shot down due to how expensive it seems or how unconventional it is, so you think it might make sense to play it safe and not waste your time. You want to give your client options, but you also want to make money on the project. What do you do? For me, the thing that has always worked is precedents. Studying older works from previous decades, and in some cases centuries. Let me use Architecture as an example.

For me, Modern Design in this country peaked in the 1950's. From toasters to houses, everyone was buzzing with the promise of tomorrow in the television age. Pick up any magazine from Ladies Home Journal to LIFE and you will find that most of what was produced in those years is now the stuff that legends are made of. Globalization had not yet happened and the United States was a hotbed of industrial activity. The world's greatest Architects all aspired to come to the United States and work. Mies. Gropius. Neutra. In fact, so much Modern Design was produced during those years that we have yet to discover it. A recent book entitled "Julius Shulman: Chicago" featured mid-century works from many architects that I had never heard of. One such architect named Edward Dart, designed one of the best houses that I have ever seen and could be featured in the page of Dwell magazine right now. So it goes without saying that there is alot of good stuff out there from the past that is only now coming to light thanks to the Internet.

The other great thing about looking at older work is that you see it in the context of 21st century life. Usually this means that you can improve it based on the technology currently available. A good example of this is radiant floor heating. Most people think that radiant floor heating was developed in the 20th century but the concept goes back over 2000 years to ancient Korea and Rome where various underfloor heating techniques were applied. Koreans used warm stones and heaters placed under the floor to keep their feet warm once they removed their shoes upon entry to a home. The Romans had a similar concept. And although the technology of distributing hot water through copper (or plastic) tubing did not come until thousands of years later, the idea had been in place for centuries.

The more you study history, the more you realize that people have not really changed. As Billy Joel said so eloquently, "We Didn't Start the Fire - It was always burning since the world's been turning". That being the case, finding an existing torch is usually more productive than trying to make your own flame. That's not to say that there aren't the right times and opportunities to make your own flame. I'm just saying that often you can get inspiration or the seed of an idea from studying relevant ideas from yesteryear.

If you are still not convinced, check out www.alvinlustig.org . Another pioneer of Design, Lustig's work is still fresh and relevant despite how long ago it was done. Who knows, maybe there's a germ of inspiration in there for your next project.

I do realize that it's the future that everyone is concerned about. I do realize that innovation is what everyone is looking for. However, I also have found that there is alot of great work out there, most of it unknown. In many ways, technology has made us less competent and less focused. We are more reliant on computers to do our work for us. Going back to earlier times allows us to see the application of a human mind on a problem without distraction. If you like Calatrava, check out Pier Luigi Nervi. If you like Pentagram, check out Herbert Matter. The results will shock you.