Looking to Survive 2009? Some Advice for Industrial Designers

What’s an industrial designer to do in the midst of economic chaos? Our columnist offers some career advice.

I’m typing this essay on modern product design with my brand-new, state-of-the-art netbook! OK, I stretched the truth there: I’m writing this screed on my aging MacBook, a corroded device that makes Steve Jobs appear the picture of health. Never mind that. In times of panic, one needs to appear edgy, fully capable, and well ahead of somber developments. Especially if one is a product designer, a profession that emerged in the 1930s as the upbeat answer to the Great Depression.

If you liked 1929 or 2008, you’ll surely love 2009, a year when the former bedrocks of industrial civilization are being tossed like pick-up sticks: finance, logistics, materials, processes, branding, energy sources. Everything about the way products are conceived, manufactured, and sold has been destabilized. I’d love to claim I’ve never seen anything like this, but since my wife is Yugoslavian, I can’t.

Great industrial products are supposed to be timeless classics. May I urge today’s designers to forget that? Great panic products are like Roosevelt’s fireside chats. They’re cheery bluff. The standard virtues of fine industrial design—safety, convenience, serviceability, utility, solid construction … well, when you’re heading for the lifeboats, you can overlook those pesky little details. For designers, the ideal panic product in 2009 is a 99-cent iPhone application. Something like an iPhone ocarina or lava lamp. Moonlighting Web designers can code a widget like that in some unlit garage. You can sell 12 million of them with viral marketing. It makes the user feel nifty and high-tech. An iPhone app hurts nobody. And the price is so low that it vanishes without a trace, so you won’t be embarrassed later as “that lava-lamp dude.” The major problem here is where to put all that windfall cash. Oil? Gold? Real estate? Sock it away in some punch-drunk bank? U.S. Treasury bonds are about to crash, right? Maybe you should buy Apple stock!

But perhaps that’s too easy. Designers are empathic, usercentric: they know that the masses, trapped underwater in unsellable homes, are buying sturdy toolboxes and preparing to do their own repairs. (Unemployed designers are great at home repairs.) When users are forced down-market, you, the designer, want to help them get there gallantly, creatively, and innovatively. They should lower their own handbasket to hell in a brisk, sparkling fashion, with socially just, triple-bottom-line products that are “globally inclusive” and designed for the “lowest billion.”

Since misery loves company, encourage conviviality in your users. Encourage them to feed one another. (Seriously.) Americans are too proud to admit they’re broke and avoiding restaurants while liv­ing on vile cheese puffs. They cannot cook, and fear asking the neighbors over for dinner. They associate the latter with Grandma’s best china, which they never use. Help them make potluck seem high-tech. Ponder the awesome Bettina blobject tableware, designed by Future Systems for Alessi. Bettina is perfect for convivial ­entertainment in 2009—it has a cogent air of mysterious hyper­functionality while avoiding any tasteless hint of that stone-dead, rotten, Bush-era, rhinestone bling-bling.

Nobody ever hunkers down with a traditional 64K line. Hibernating Amer­icans will cluster around their Obama-friendly broadband, over which they can steal free entertainment as the New York Times goes broke. Help them distribute fast free broadband to all their neighbors. The Recording Industry Association of America has given up suing pirates, so your risks here are currently minimal. Your popularity is totally guaranteed. In economic transitions, as any former Communist can tell you, your social capital is vastly more useful than the useless, rapidly vaporizing actual capital.

Except for cheap cell phones, which the global poor truly dote on, the lowest billion rarely buy “appropriate” objects designed for them by soft-hearted liberals. But formerly rich guys buying up-market peasant products? Man, that market should boom! It’s high time for designers to plunder and upgrade the vernacular technologies of the Third World: wheelbarrows, bicycle rickshaws, rainwater barrels, window boxes, awnings, and mosquito nets; or weird and whimsical wind toys, bamboo-and-Mylar windup shortwave radios. If they’re cheap and blithe, you can’t go wrong here. You want to vividly display a host of eye-catching solar gizmos, while quietly installing some humble weather stripping, which has a terrific ROI.

Interior designers should see boom times because nobody’s buying real housing. To cozy up to their neighbors (for security purposes), users will need to redecorate. Help them! Throw out anything in 2008’s flatulent imperial purple, a doomed hue that will flee into hiding for a generation. Rhinestones, crystal? Out with those! Avoid classic black as well because, all around you, sullen Gothic pessimists are seeing their oldest dreams come true. This year offers you a rare chance to err on the side of sunshine yellow, upbeat orange. Roseate pink has a proven calming effect on maddened crowds.

During a global real estate crisis, you don’t much want a house. You want a portable tent. Top choice: the as yet nonexistent Alpine Capsule, a glossy hideaway designed by Ross Lovegrove. It’s a self-sufficient acrylic-mirror dome from which you can watch the planet’s glaciers melt in toasty nudity while warmed by efficient green-energy systems.

Midrange: any LOT-EK shelter welded from its signature construction unit, a steel freight container. Low-end: sleep in your kid’s all-organic tree house. By the way, recessions are terrific times to bear children. It’s never simple to schedule the production of tomorrow’s consumers, but think of it this way: Recessions can’t last a lifetime. Preschool kids don’t know what poverty is. In ten years your kid will face nice short school lines, and in 25 he’ll have his pick of jobs.

In 2009 you might be unemployed, like those moguls at the top of the financial food chain, so it’s necessary to look busy, preferably at some advanced and exotic activity. Don’t give in to shamefaced cringing and glum, hand-wringing humility. You’ll be getting plenty of humiliation from crazed market forces, which behave in ways that make no sense to anyone. So why not be out there, zanily extravagant? Are you losing anything the whole world hasn’t lost already? Ask yourself, “What would Maurizio Cattelan do?”

Personally, while doing nothing in particular, I like to claim that I’m working on “cloudware ubiquity apps” requiring the mash-up of processing sketches on the Arduino chip. There’s no way that anyone can prove I’m not really doing that. And who knows? By the end of next year, it might even turn out to be true.

Essays on Good Design

The Children of Raymond Loewy
By Deyan Sudjic

Within the Product of No Product
By John Hockenberry

The Real Driver
By Niels Diffrient

Product Panic: 2009
By Bruce Sterling

Rekindling the Book
By Karrie Jacobs

Categories: Industrial Design

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