My double life as a designer and an explorer

From the Royal Society of Arts lecture given by Santiago Miranda, the designer and partner in King Miranda Associati, Milan
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The Independent Online
Industrial products are made to be of help to the consumer. We designers take on the pleasure and the responsibility of thinking up, exploring, devising and developing these objects, alone or in small groups of experts.

Industrial products are made to be of help to the consumer. We designers take on the pleasure and the responsibility of thinking up, exploring, devising and developing these objects, alone or in small groups of experts. This is like a lonely outward journey, made up of exploration and crossing points, of doubts, second thoughts and trying things out.

The itinerary of explorations is always changeable. Its motto is "never take the straight line". Exploration has something of the erratic and uncertain about it. The explorer knows he doesn't know, therefore he doesn't seek, because his aim is not to find but to understand.

The explorer favours the intersection and has learned to skim the surface of subjects without delving into them. He knows that to explore means to pass and re-pass the area close to the places and concepts, always observing them from all angles until he takes possession of them.

To explore means to patrol and pass over, to sound and scrutinise, to investigate and inspect. The explorer knows that memory is a poor guide and doesn't trust it, so keeps his observations in notebooks, draws maps, collects documents and, above all, lets himself be guided by his intuition, going back over familiar trails.

Wandering, as he does, the explorer loves to make the paths of his perambulations cross, in a way that would seem accidental only to the inattentive observer. These crossings are reference points that, at the end of the exploration, will help him to reconstruct the map of the journey. A designer's drawings and notes document, in the same way as do an explorer's maps, the territory explored.

Similarly, the process of exploration, during its planning stage, brings to mind boatmen in the marshes, when they propel their punts forward through the water not by rowing, but by punting, thrusting on the bottom with long poles. This way of almost walking on water, using the punt pole as an extension of the body, progressing between existing and possible islets, zigzagging, unwilling to take the straight line, has something in common with the increasing awareness and slow approach that designing requires. The boatman knows that the bottom changes all the time and that the marsh is never the same. Between the outward and return journeys the channel has changed.

So, too, the designer is aware that during the design process, from conception to production, he must proceed with enormous care, avoiding all preconceptions and conditioned reflexes.

This long journey is uncertain, solitary going out and in unison on the return. A return that will begin with the first day of distribution and finish when the last piece is taken off the market, bringing to an end a cycle that had begun, in some cases, many years earlier.

Immediately after the product is distributed, when the product finds the natural niche in the market for which it was devised and produced, the consumer takes it over in very personal and different ways. This is the moment that the return journey begins, in unison this time, where we designers see, sometimes with pleasure and sometimes with horror, but always with astonishment, how the consumer has used our offspring. This retracing of our steps over the project is an exploration of our expectations, what we had wanted for the product and how we had imagined its relationship with the user.

Thus, I hope I have shown that the designer's exploration is twofold, like the boatman's: plain to see on the surface and controlled by our eyes, and yet blind in the depths and governed by touch. This line of progress across the surface, apparently smooth, is held steady by the fathoming of the pole, in its dual function of sensor and propeller, with which the boatman regulates speed and direction.

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