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On Product Design

by Kimberly Elam


Kimberly Elam is a writer, educator, and graphic designer. She is currently the Chair of the Graphic & Interactive Communication Department at the Ringling College of Art + Design, Sarasota, Florida. She has written and lectured extensively about graphic design and design education. Her current work focuses on the development of a series of innovative ebooks and print-on-demand books for design education on the web site, StudioResourceInc.com.

Most people don’t consider the idea that another human designs everything in the man-made environment. To most of us new stuff just periodically appears. Sometime it’s worth a mention when the style or function leapfrogs over all that has preceded it like the Apple iPod or the Segway, but most of the time we just take it for granted. In histories of product design there’s considerable information about the technology, style, and designer but little input from the user of the product. Deconstructing Product Design has addressed that issue by highlighting the human response to the product, be it delight or disgust.

Product design is a startling reflection of the culture of the time. Consider the Buck Rogers rocket-style vacuums, pencil sharpeners, and fans from the 1950s that were adorned with gleaming chrome streamlined ellipses and rocket fins. All took on the supposed futuristic forms of rocketry that were in the subconscious of the public — fresh from WWII and astounded by the leaps and bounds in air travel and weaponry. No one questioned much what business a vacuum or pencil sharpener had being in the shape of a rocket we just liked it. Ideas of science fiction were quickly becoming science fact and the public couldn’t get enough. It wasn’t enough to read about the future or watch science fiction serials, people wanted to live it and be a part of the future.

It’s fascinating how some products become parts of the fabric of living and the collective subconscious long after they have disappeared. The silhouette of the rotary dial telephone still communicates the idea of a telephone to teens who have never dialed a phone that was corded to a wall outlet. Similarly, few teens have ever had a Coke in a glass iconic bottle, yet the familiar shape of the bottle still resonates.

Everyone remembers his or her favorite toy as a child, whether it was a Red Ryder BB Gun, a Barbie, or a Mattel Vac-u-form machine (my favorite). We remember the delight of owning the object, the joy in using it, and the pleasure of making every other kid in the neighborhood jealous. Everyone remembers their very first car that heralded a new world of adulthood and independence–what it looked like, smelled like, how it sounded, and how it drove. Forever, those products hold a soft spot in our hearts and few things we ever own will give us more pleasure.

Some products become classics because of the intense beauty of the form and “rightness” of the proportions. This is particularly true of furniture design and few architects and designers haven’t lusted for a Mies van der Rhoe Barcelona chair or a Tizio Table Lamp. The idea that such things could take on the form of sculpture under the disguise of functionality allowed us to spend far more than was necessary on something truly beautiful and extraordinary, and enjoy the product in our daily lives.

Other products work so darn well that even if we don’t need them we want to have them anyway. The Leatherman Pocket Survival Tool or the Swiss Army Knife resides in the toolboxes, glove compartments, and kitchen drawers of many homes and cars. The good design and quality construction are coupled with multifunction in a small and convenient package. They’re rarely used but provide comfort to us just in knowing that they’re there waiting to saw, screw, cut, file, puncture, or grasp when needed.

Now and again a product will do something absolutely extraordinary and magical. The Polaroid camera was such a product, and in the 1950s produced the first instant camera prints. The prints were a bit blurry and the color a bit wonky but no one cared. For the first time we had prints in a matter of moments and knew immediately if the picture cut off Uncle Fred’s head or if one of the kids stuck out their tongue. The magic and delight quotient was so high that we mostly ignored the fact that the instant prints cost far more than any other photo and while many of the later cameras were downright inexpensive the film cost a fortune. About the time that instant photography became commonplace the SX-70 took the magic to new levels when a flat rectangular box popped up and through an ingenious series of hinges and bellows became a camera.

Sometimes products are so deeply seated in our collective subconscious that they periodically resurrect themselves in new and improved forms. The Vespa scooter, produced by Italian maker Piaggio, is one that was wildly popular in the 1950s and through films such as Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita became an iconic symbol of carefree youth. By the 1990s Vespa’s market share had dwindled and Piaggio was in trouble. An updated but still very much Vespa-esque design coupled with nostalgia in a congested and gas-conscious world saved it.

Product design is so much more than functionality. The things we touch, use, enjoy, and savor are a part of the fabric of our lives, memories, and culture. Deconstructing Product Design probes beneath the veneer of products to reveal the truth beneath the glossy exterior. How well does it really work? Is it reliable and functional or just pretty? Why is there reverence for some products and disdain for others? Through Deconstructing Product Design, users are eager to tell the truth with wit and candor and we readers have the joy of mentally adding our very own unique insights.