Why Yves Behar’s 10 Principles for Design Just Aren’t Enough

Behar's crib sheet aims to reorient design in an increasingly networked, augmented world. But what his decalogue leaves out is telling.
Yves Béhar, speaking at A/D/O in Brooklyn. Courtesy Gary He

So much of designers’ work seems to be explaining to the world what it is exactly that they do. To this end, they often deploy “principles”—pithy maxims that attempt to both describe their own methodology and prescribe a direction for others to follow. Perhaps the epitome of the designer-principlist is the highly esteemed Modernist Dieter Rams, who in the 1970s put forward a ten-point edict outlining “good design.” His Ten Design Commandments not only rationalized the elegant conservatism of his highly individualistic work but effectively converted an entire generation of designers.

Enter Yves Béhar, one of today’s more prolific and savvy industrial designers, on whom the brand-consolidating power of design principles is not lost. Speaking recently at the opening conference of A/D/O, a Brooklyn-based design and innovation center, Béhar made the case for why, at a time when design practice continues to diffuse and expand, we need a fresh set of design principles. The contemporary design object, he noted, is increasingly augmented and “enabled by technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and smart environments.” For him, this “new era of design” must be acknowledged by a shift in thinking about such AI-empowered products. It is for our digitally conditioned moment that Béhar proposed ten principles of his own, which hold that good design today:

solves an important human problem
is context specific (it doesn’t follow historical clichés)
enhances human ability (without replacing the human)
works for everyone every day
is discreet (it provides “invisible interfaces”)
is a platform that grows with needs and opportunities
brings about products and services that bring about long term relationships (but don’t create emotional dependency)
learns and predicts human behavior
accelerates the adoption of new ideas
removes complexity from life

Most immediately striking is these principles’ close resemblance to those of the aforementioned Rams: from using each principle to define “good design” to matching the number to Rams’s own decalogue. But while this might at first seem like an eager homage, what the affinity makes more salient is Béhar’s deep debt to a Modernism that’s less design ethic and more designerly posture. Béhar’s inability to break away from some of the central selling points of Modernism ultimately keeps him from taking a truly principled position on behalf of design, whose propensity for being transformed by the next generation of AI-enabled technologies is profound.

The term “good design” and its implied virtuous optimism is not without history. For early industrial designers like Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes, who made their names designing post-Depression-era exhibits for corporations, the task was to cast industrial advances in a positive, socially transformative light, while giving the public a much-needed dose of optimism and hope for the future.  This utopian, corporate boosterism ironically capitalized on one of the core tenets of Modernism as a putatively revolutionary project that severed society’s ties with the inequitable past and put mass production into public service by delivering to all (through mass consumption) a better life. Taking on the ethos of a technologically enabled, brighter future, products were styled and “streamlined”—that is, wrapped in exterior shells that at once referenced the futuristic, aerodynamic curves and supplied cover for the underlying technologies. By the 1950s “good design” became a badge of distinction when a series of exhibitions under that title were put on by the Museum of Modern Art in partnership with the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, the nation’s then largest wholesale marketer. The heavily publicized shows of modern housewares made little fuss over the fact that, while these artifacts presumably possessed some timeless quality of “good design,” making them worthy of display in an art museum, they were all also products currently on the market. “Good design,” in other words, whatever its vague Modernist criteria, has from the outset implied design that’s good for business.

These spurious tropes are all present in Béhar’s principles for a “new era” of AI design. Principles number three and ten (“enhances human ability,” “removes complexity from life”) pitch a well-worn version of humanity’s transcendence by design, while numbers two and nine (avoid historical clichés and adopt new ideas) celebrate unqualified newness under the valueless guise of progress. In an effort to echo the democratizing spirit of mass consumption, principle number four (“for everyone every day”) contradicts the context specificity of number two, while the discreet, invisible interfaces of number five simply reiterate the concealment of styling.

The Aura Powered Suit, developed by Superflex and designed by Yves Béhar’s firm fuseproject, enhances muscle strength using robotics.

Of course, what Béhar means by “good design” is actually the unquestioned AI-enablement of objects, in which technology’s potential malevolence is overcome by design’s tendency toward goodness: a kind of redemption for design’s traditional role as technology’s cover. But this position doesn’t take the potentially profound ethical and existential crises associated with AI seriously. In fact, beyond the predominant enthusiasm for what the coming technological advances might bring, the concerns from the tech community are serious enough that the MIT Media Lab and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University recently launched the $27 million Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund in order to “advance artificial intelligence research for the public good.” Shortly thereafter, the Future of Life Institute—a think tank committed to finding “ways for humanity to steer its own course considering new technologies and challenges”—posted 23 AI principles, 13 of which are, notably, devoted to ethics and values (e.g. “Safety,” “Failure Transparency,” “Liberty and Privacy,” “Non Subversion”). The principles have since been cosigned by more than a thousand AI/robotics researchers and close to 2,000 other technologists, entrepreneurs, and academics, with Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk among them.

And yet, for Béhar, AI and robotics present only an unproblematic opportunity to deliver products that, as principles six, seven, and eight put it, grow with users’ needs and opportunities, bring about long-term relationships, and learn and predict human behavior. Leaving serious ethical concerns unaddressed, these three principles—the only ones that seem to specifically pertain to artificially intelligent, responsive objects—read like opportunistic marketing strategies for cultivating perennially loyal consumers.

This shouldn’t be surprising, since Béhar’s entire presentation on principles was heavily punctuated by his firm’s current and past projects. From Snoo, the impeccably engineered smart baby crib, which autonomously and sensitively rocks and shushes an infant to sleep, to a collaboration with the start-up Superflex on a powered bodysuit that helps the elderly stay mobile, certainly, so much of this work is commendable in its deep attention to real human needs. But by the end of the presentation it became apparent that Béhar’s principles for a paradigm shift in design were doing more work showcasing his brand than they were charting any new course for AI-driven products.

What the principles lack almost entirely is a sense of responsibility for the ethical ramifications of the kind of technology with which Béhar seems to be enamored. The already evident emergence of AI systems (e.g., autonomous vehicles) demands serious consideration, and many leading technologists are indeed looking deeply into the moral problems of AI by drawing up comprehensive ethical frameworks. Unless designers—professionals with a unique capacity to shape the material world and to instill products with deep values—take up some truly principled positions, the profession risks being relegated to mere styling once again.

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