How Design Really Changes Lives

Monday, 28 February 2011

IT IS often said that no-one notices good design, but everyone notices when cupboard doors collide, window latches cannot be reached, or games consoles break.  Everyone knows bad design.

It is true that we all put up with badly designed road traffic systems, and we know that cars could be designed better. There are many products, buildings, and organisational structures that could be improved upon with a little consideration and care.

Design — good or bad — is far more important than it gets credit for.  Design affects us all very deeply indeed.  It you think again about the phrase used to open this article —  if no-one notices good design, then it must be the case that it operates on an unconscious level.  So design is affecting us all the time, whether we know it or not.

Design can give us repetitive strain injury, design can help save lives. It is a wonderful thing, and I hope to show here how recent changes in design have changed us into 21st century people, and that it has affected our culture and lifestyles, and that it may continue to do so.

Look at the mid 1980s — people had good solid 100% reliable technologies, such as washing machines, fridges, telephones, televisions and so forth.  The deregulation of the telephone system in the UK meant that, suddenly, people were free to install telephone extension sockets throughout their homes.

This was a revolution; gone was the design of the hallway, with the hall table-seat combo with telephone, and phone book. Phones could be any shape, mounted on walls, and even taken into a room and plugged in. This affected the way homes were laid out, and also the way people related to the telephone.

Cordless telephones took this cultural shift to another level. People could now walk about their homes during a telephone conversation. On the down side was the waste of time and effort expended in putting in new extension sockets — they became redundant.

This redundancy was reversed with the rise of the PC.  People wanted to connect to the internet, first on dial-up, and then on Broadband — all down the phone line.

Homes were redesigned around a computer, mouse and keyboard set-up. The monitor would be a large CRT, not unlike a TV set of the day.  The computer itself would be a big box, and there would inevitably be a printer. This was a bit like bringing back the fixed point arrangement of the hallway telephone table.  It was a struggle figuring out where to put this kit. A lot of people gave over a small bedroom, a box room, the space under the stairs, a part of the dining area, or a converted space in a garage or attic.

Living rooms required large televisions, and they tended to sit on a special item of furniture that also stored Videocassette recorders and the associated videocassettes.  Tape collections could spill out, and require a bookcase or shelves.  Then a DVD player would be added into the system – along with all the disks.  The entire living room would be designed around the visual media system.

There would also be an audio system – some still had music-centres, but by the mid 1980s, it was more popular to have a stacked system in a cabinet. The array would be: recordplayer, cassette unit, radio amplifier, CD player.  there would need to be storage for music cassettes, LPs, and CDs.

That is quite a burden on the home designer.  A long room running front to back would often have to satisfy the three areas of media — visual, music and computing — on top of the desire for a fireplace, patio doors, dining areas and couches, lighting and reading matter, like books and magazines.  It was a crush, especially as homes were designed to have smaller rooms.

The sheer weight of all this brought change.  Something had to give. With affordable broadband, laptops and wifi routers, the computing side of things got a lot smaller, and more portable.  Teenagers could afford mobile phones and began to use social websites from their bedrooms. Again, the way the home was used changed to accommodate.

Flat panel TVs got cheaper, and this gave living rooms more space again. Some TVs were mounted to walls, but the  furniture holding DVDs and Video units, changed to housing x-Box, Playstation and Freeview or satellite boxes.

People simply stopped using videocassettes, audiocassettes, and vinyl.  This freed up space, especially when TVs incorporated DVD players. That long front-to-back room no longer catered for an office computer area, and media storage; everything had changed — and the way we used the rooms and lived together had changed beyond recognition.

And this may continue. There has been a lot of fuss about copyright, DRM, and media piracy ever since the audiocassette. Modern tablets and smartphones have little memory for keeping recorded music and movies, they are more geared toward streaming media. This changes everything.

If you can ask for and receive any film or any song instantly, then why would you want to store it at all? The bookcases and shelves holding stored media will no longer be required. The worries that people used to have about having enough CDs in their car, or having a filing system to find their music quickly – all vanish.  The worries that people have had about tapes getting chewed or LPs scratched and warped also vanish. Everything can be streamed anywhere. This can include books and bookshelves, calenders and reminder notes on fridges too.

If people do not physically buy LPs, CDs, tapes or DVDs, then the high street shops that sell or hire them, the factories that make them, and the repair and maintenance support for them, all have to disappear. It is not merely the home that has changed, it is the town, the city, and the shopping mall. These items no longer seem to be an investment, but a burden. And the entire concept of piracy gets consigned to the historybooks.

The drive for a more ecological lifestyle has brought changes too — shopping bags, and recycling bins are the main features, but perhaps also compostors or can crushers as well.

When modular kitchens were originally invented, dishwashers, sinks, and everything else was sized to fit the unit size. There was a work-triangle arrangement of sink-cooker-fridge that served everyone very well.  Then came the microwave oven.  No-one knew where this device ought to fit in to the traditional scheme. Add to that the trend to split cookers up into hobs and ovens, and bad design started to prevail. Hiding appliances behind doors confused matters even further.

In houses built from the late 1980s, utility rooms became a trend, removing appliances from kitchens altogether — but they still never resolved the microwave problem. Slow cooking, steaming, and recycling have since pushed the modular kitchen to its limits. The newest design trend is the anti-fridge movement, where a lot of food is stored out at room temperature and not in the fridge, and the food is arranged in such a way that it looks nice and works together (such as potatoes and apples being stored closely together to stop them going off). These will affect kitchen design for the future – along with ideas about the materials used to make the kitchen cupboards, counters, the energy use in the kitchen, and the move away from tins and pre-packaged ready meals.

Product design, as I hope I have convinced you, has radically changed our houses, our way of life, the criminal status of music lovers, and more over 10-20 years. New needs will continue to change this, but also to change how we build homes and other premises and vehicles. With such high tech at home, we may be able to work from home in such a way that it does not feel isolated, but fully socially engaged, without the commute.

It’s all down to design and designers.

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