OF MACHINES AND; DESIGNER DREAMS
In the world of business the role of design has too often been forced to take a back seat, says Sir Terence Conran in his new book. Here, in our second essay taken from Terence Conran on Design, he guides us through some off the changes in the workplace - from the look of our offices to the increasing importance of corporate indentities - and argues that new technology could remove forever the distinction between home and work
Sunday 20 October 1996
The Arts and Crafts movement and successive groups in Europe, sought to restore "art" to ordinary things by re-establishing craft skills as a basis for production. While the work of Morris, Moser and Hoffmann has been enormously influential in the shaping of contemporary taste, as commercial enterprises such designers and groups were largely unsuccessful within the terms they set themselves. Lovingly handcrafted work could simply not be made in sufficient quantities to bring the price of such manufacture within the reach of ordinary people, a bitter fact which Morris acknowledged in his complaint that he spent his life "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich".
Much of what the Bauhaus produced was also rooted in craftwork, but unlike the Arts and Crafts followers, the leading lights of the emerging Modern Movement did not reject the machine as a means of production. Forward looking rather than nostalgic, modernist designers looked to new materials to forge a machine art of pure form that would be available to everyone.
Morris did not believe that a well-designed object or beautiful artefact could arise from an industrial process which separated the role of the designer or artist from the role of the maker - or producer. The designers of the Bauhaus, approaching the question from a different angle, sought to ensure that machine processes gave rise to products which expressed their own honest, functional beauty. Each was addressing, in different ways, the dilemmas posed by mass production.
Mass production had entered a new dimension in 1913 when Ford introduced the moving assembly line, a concept which revolutionised the entire nature of work. He realised that if car parts were simplified and standardised, and assembly broken down into small, repetitive tasks, there would be no need for skilled craftsmen. This was a revolution, and the result was a phenomenal increase in production. The success of this method soon led to the assembly line being adopted in many other spheres of production - but with little regard for the quality of working life.
Standardisation and the logic of efficiency soon meant there was little to choose between something manufactured by one firm and the equivalent something made by another. Before long, the designer found a new role in industry, as a stylist, in the creation of brand or corporate identity and as an interpreter of technology.
Industrial design was first used as a form of marketing in America in the early 1930s. One of the undisputed leaders of the field was Raymond Loewy. French by birth, Loewy began his career as a fashion illustrator in New York in the 1920s, but soon became engaged in trying to convince manufacturers that the appearance of their products mattered. Many of Loewy's transformations showed that styling could be more than skin deep. Stylistic changes to the outward appearance can result in products which are easier to manufacture, cheaper to produce and more pleasurable to use.
Manufacturers gradually saw the benefit of industrial design as a means of distinguishing their products from those of their competitors. The strategy of creating a "family of objects" which shared a common aesthetic was adopted by companies such as Braun, Sony, Olivetti, Cassina, Kartell and Artemide, and quickly established them as world leaders in contemporary design.
Olivetti epitomises Italian industrial design. The company employed original designers and thinkers including the best-known names in Italian design: Marcello Nizzoli, Ettore Sottsass, Vico Magistretti, Gae Aulenti and Mario Bellini, among others. From the outset, design was never hived off into a separate department, but infiltrated every area of the company's activity. The Lexicon 80 typewriter, designed in 1948 by Nizzoli, was the first of a series of classic designs he produced for the company: its success helped to consolidate Olivetti's image as a design leader.
West German companies adopted a similar approach to the role of design within industry. But, unlike Italy's more organic and artistically inspired aesthetic, the German version of a national design identity combined Bauhaus principles with rigorous technical efficiency in a more stylised or formal design language.
In both Germany and Italy - and for Scandinavian companies such as Orrefors, Bang & Olufsen and Marimekko - design was selling products. At the same time, what was being sold was "design" itself, design as excellence, quality and thoughtfulness. In their expression of functional efficiency, what such products offered the consumer was a reinforced image of professionalism in the work place. Although many of the products emanating from Europe were more highly priced than their American equivalents, design had not yet acquired the connotations of spurious luxury which went along with the perception of "designer goods" in the 1980s.
American companies in the 1950s used design in a rather different way. This was the era when the entire notion of corporate identity began to take off, and firms looked to outside design consultancies to devise ways of supporting a brand name or company image that would maintain their competitive edge.
Nothing looks more wasteful to the public at large than spending huge amounts of money on a change of livery, logo or masthead. It is true that there is often a tendency for designers to over-intellectualise the subject. But the costs involved in changing or updating a company's image compare very favourably to installing new and costly computer equipment, for example. A new corporate identity can have a tremendous impact on the way the company functions in the marketplace as well as from within.
By the 1950s, with the arrival of mass consumption, corporate identity was responsible for establishing national and international brands and became an important means of distinguishing between rival producers of similar products - sometimes, it could be argued, the only means.
Corporate identity has evolved into a highly sophisticated form of graphic and conceptual presentation. The basic idea of using a memorable visual device as a badge for membership, allegiance or identification is, of course, hardly new. Just look at the intricate visual language of heraldry: of crosses, stars, crescents and other religious imagery: of crests, flags, coats of arms and school ties - on every level and at every age symbols have been used to identify the bearer as a member of a particular group.
Yet despite the indisputable power of such symbols, the public often display a remarkably poor visual memory. Who would find it easy to reproduce the ICI logo? Or recall what a fluttering bird stands for? A symbol or logo which incorporates the name of the company or brand is often more effective in the long run at keeping the public's attention. Coca-Cola's flowing mock-copperplate logo-type, adjusted imperceptibly over the years, is a case in point. Closer to home, the Habitat logo was a sympathetic marrying of the company name and the Baskerville typeface, the lower-case style an important signal of informality and the fashionability of the time of its inception.
New companies seeking to make their mark on those in need of radical update will require a more significant level of change than a company which has worked hard to build a successful image over the years. Surprisingly, many companies find it hard to articulate what their philosophy actually is, so the designer's role, therefore, is to act almost like a company psychologist and tease out common purposes and ideals.
Much of the preliminary investigative work centres on how the change of identity will be implemented - and how quickly. This is not merely a question of public relations - the public launch of the new image, for example - but also involves an analysis of how the new identity will affect basic structures and practices within the company itself. During the course of discovering how many signs, labels, van liveries, uniforms, letterheads, forms and cards will need to be changed, opportunities will present themselves for rationalisation. Reviewing the number of different sizes of letter paper (which can proliferate in large companies with many departments), or redesigning a form can save time and money. Increase efficiency, and help to project a coherent image to the public. In this way, a new identity can be a powerful rallying point for those working within the organisation, pulling together the efforts of different departments and generating an important sense of belonging.
Sometimes, however, what is required is a major jolt. The new identity for British Home Stores was a case in point. When Habitat/ Mothercare joined with them, we decided that a new image was required to alter the public's perception. The makeover was planned to happen literally overnight. The new "BhS" identity which preserved the initials of the old name, hinted that the best qualities would be conserved even if change was radical. For maximum impact the new identity was put into effect all over the country during the course of a single weekend. Naturally, such a dramatic change made organisational demands, from planning permission for new shop fronts and signs to producing stickers to remind telephonists to answer with the new name.
How individuals relate to the work they do, where they work and what they work with are just as much design issues as what is produced, how it functions and what it looks like. An important role of the designer, I feel, should be to think about work in its broadest context, to dream of how the world might be.
In the area of work, technology has acquired a momentum of its own which has brought about a remorseless distancing of people from the work they produce. The loss of physicality has been inexorable, from hand tool to machine, from assembly line to computer terminal.
I am no Luddite or technophobe, but I do recognise a need to compensate for this missing human dimension. To me, the processes of writing and drawing are very important and these are not activities I would particularly wish to carry out on a computer. Making marks with a pen on paper is a fundamental pleasure but it is also thought-provoking and exploratory. By contrast, a computer programme, no matter how sophisticated, seems to eliminate quirkiness and to restrict the free flow of ideas. It does not readily permit error or even personality, and, in design it is human error that often opens up a new avenue.
"User-friendly" is a marketing catchphrase which sums up our increasingly uneasy relationship with machines. The patronising implication seems to be that technology can indeed outsmart us - or dominate and work us - and that we need some low-tech route into this sophisticated realm. All machines and all forms of technology, I believe, should be user-friendly. If they are not, they are both badly designe and badly conceived.
The Filofax is a good case in point. You can easily store all the information you need - and a lot you don't - on a a small notebook computer, but the Filofax is so much more personal. It feels good in the hand, it smells nice, it ages alongside you and it evokes memories and carries tear-stained messages, occasional doodles, all manner of mementoes and souvenirs. A Filofax becomes attached to its owner in an intensely personal way.
Design or technological improvements are often spurred by the failure of something to function as it should, or they may arise out of a designer anticipating a need which had not previously existed. Yet these projected scenarios often turn out very differently from what was expected. The paperless office, which was supposed to accompany the advent of computerisation, provokes a wry smile today. The ease of printing documents and the perfectability of each alternative means that more, not less, paper gets consumed.
The role of design, as more becomes technically possible, is to sift through such issues and remind us of the real quality of life. Many designers, myself included, find Victorian warehouses, factories and stations infinitely more appealing than the ornate, cluttered interior decoration and domestic architecture of the area. Gutsy, raw and robustly engineered, these buildings express the energy and entrepreneurialism of the age.
The Victorians maintained a sharp separation of home and work. When the head of the household crossed the threshold of his home at the end of the working day, he entered a cosy domain stuffed with curios and swathed with fabric and trimmings that obliterated any outward sign of function - an environment as different as possible from the workplace. The Victorian home was not an efficient place to live or maintain, but it was not meant to be. It served instead as a refuge from work and a place to display the status symbols and luxuries that wages could buy.
It is inevitable that, these days, with the coming of the Internet, the trend to work at home will increase. The growth of information technology is already having profound effects on working patterns: on the individual level, such changes will focus attention more sharply on the quality of the built environment.
If work is no longer tied to the workplace - office block, factory, out- of-town industrial park - opportunities arise to redefine urban space. Many of the problems faced by towns and cities are the legacy of previous working patterns. The dormitory village, the commuter town, the featureless suburb as much as the urban slum are the products of a rigid compartmentalisation of working life and social life. The effect has been to knock the heart out of many cities, at the same time creating satellite communities with no sense of vitality. Towns such as Milton Keynes, originally modelled on Los Angeles, are based on the premise that private transport removes the necessity to live near one's place of work, or indeed near shops and leisure facilities. Yet the places most people enjoy the most, those which often prove most successful at adapting to change, are areas of "mixed use" - where housing is supported by shops, workplaces, schools, parks, restaurants, cafes and other public meeting places, bound together in a tight, bustling network.
By removing the distinction between home and work, technology offers an opportunity for more community-based life. The ultimate challenge for design in the area of work may be in the field of urban planning - to help integrate social and working life once more.
How and where we work are key issues, but whether we will be able to work at all is the huge question now facing us. People want to work; they need integrated lives which allow physical and mental exchanges.
I would hope that in the post-industrial world, where basic needs are met with little human intervention, small workshops and factories, where products can be designed and made with individual care and attention, would spring up and flourish. If that optimistic scenario came to pass, we would see design at the heart of the working process once more.
Terence Conran on Design is published on 17 October at pounds 30. Readers of the Independent on Sunday can purchase copies for pounds 25 by calling 01733 371999 and quoting their credit-card number or by sending a cheque made payable to: Reed Book Services, Conran Octopus Direct, 43 Stapleton Road, Orton Southgate, Peterborough PE2 6TD. Postage and packing is pounds 1 per book. You must quote reference H126.
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