Reinventing Invention

I’m having a wabi sabi moment. Thoughts of simplicity, tranquility, and balance envelop my senses even as I feel a lively intelligence hovering around me. I’ve escaped into Tadao Ando’s Suntory Museum, on Osaka’s carnivalesque waterfront, and I’m strolling through white interiors, looking at an array of fam­iliar objects. They tell a story about how inventive forms, in conjunction with material and technical innovation, can result in an iconic family of industrial designs. These products—from a breakthrough 1956 phonograph with a clear acrylic cover to an elegant shelving system that was recently updated with thin, strong materials—are part of a traveling exhibition, Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams. The accompanying film illuminates this work’s strong moral underpinnings. Rams, a mid-20th-century heir to the Bauhaus, was ingrained with the ethos of specifying minimum resources in the service of maximum performance, while never forgetting the elusive concept of beauty. What he made, and what he can teach us, needs our full attention as we reevaluate our own design culture. And while his past is our prologue, we face unique problems that call for a new era of invention—invention with an ethical underpinning.

Watching the film—a chorus of German and English voices extolling Rams’s importance to what used to be called “good design”—and contemplating the prudent use of resources in times of global scarcity, I recall a prescient conversation from two years ago. I was teaching ethics at New York’s Parsons the New School for Design, hoping to provoke a discussion around the morality of using environmentally safe materials in new product design, when a young man challenged my premise. “What makes you think that we would design a product at all?” asked my student, who saw his role as much more than a creator of new stuff. “Maybe what the manufacturer really needs is an evaluation of available resources, a study of capabilities, a look at a new client base, or even a system of communication—and then, perhaps, a product design.” He was not convinced that another toaster, TV, cell phone, or chair was what was actually needed.

Here was a future designer arguing for an expanded role for the field. He saw himself as a knowledgeable collaborator who could exceed his clients’ expectations; he was familiar with the kind of research we’ve come to expect of firms like IDEO, which began life as a product-design consultancy and is now a source of useful information about how people behave and what they need to be happy and healthy in classrooms, hospitals, and other spaces. Yes, he was deeply interested in the ethical issues he’d be facing, and he foresaw himself facing these challenges through action and skill.

While I’m immersed in Rams’s century, I remember my student’s eager face and forceful argument, and feel that what’s brewing now will be as important as the contributions of those who went before us. And so here is our wish list for the design ethos of the 21st century: we need objects that are not only beautiful, affordable, enduring, functional, ergonom­ic, accessible, sustainable, and well made but also emotionally resonant and socially beneficial. If we can figure this out, we’ll indeed enter a new era of creativity that may, once again, yield the good design we all crave—as well as satisfy that young man who made me think.

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