Form doesn’t follow function. It certainly did at one point in time, for mechanical objects, but the phrase doesn’t follow for products in our age of touchscreen gadgetry, nor has it for the past 40 years. What form should follow, if anything, varies considerably from designer to designer, but by and large modern conventions stem from mechanical predecessors: Keyboards resemble typewriters, digital cameras resemble film cameras, and so on. In Gary Huswit’s film Objectified, Karim Rashid makes the argument that, as designers, we are free to remodel products as we see fit, and shouldn’t restrict ourselves to the constraints of antiquated technology. It’s certainly true; there’s no need to be constrained, but is there anything to gain?
I personally don’t believe in change for the change’s sake; If making something radically different in form improves the usability of the product, then that is of course a positive move. But to make something different just to be different, isn’t innovation in my books, its just an ego trip (yeh, I’m looking at you, Rashid). If something is radically different, the user will have to adjust their use of the product, and with this abondon their preconceptions of how it works. All ‘knowledge in the head’, as Don Norman puts it, is lost, and the user must rely on new information directly from the product.
In their 2006 Super Normal exhibtion Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrsion select the Ricoh GR as a super normal camera. It looks like a slimmed down film camera. This decision, and in fact the very ethos of super normal, is because the camera meets our expectations of how a camera should appear. In its familiarity, it brings comfort through understanding. Without novelty, it cannot surprise or astound, but nor can it confuse or disappoint. It is as expected and as such it is timeless.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that radical innovation is a bad thing. But merely to suggest say that I don’t want to see triangular cameras, just because it’s possible with the electronic architecture of modern digital cameras. Instead I would suggest that form should follow understanding. Either by evolving existing form conventions, or by radically changing, but introducing a simplified model of use. The iPod or iPhone, for instance, disrupted existing usage conventions, but are intuitive. If a product is to discard existing preconceptions of use, then it should be able to introduce a new ones without much more than a brief play of the interface.
So I’m back in London. With the next exciting step ahead of me, its time to take a brief moment to look back over the past four months and think about what I’ve learnt from working in China.
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about designing in China is the pace of projects: some turning initial ideas to rendered solutions in a matter of days. As a designer looking to get experience in ideation, sketching and rendering this has been an amazing opportunity to up my game in these areas. However, with pace, a few things get left by the wayside. Market and user research are limited; often restricted to delivery of the brief and half a day of online investigation. The result is a limited understanding of the end user.
Designers tended to work independently, only bringing together solutions at the evaluation stage with little synthesis. There was little overall vision of a product discussed at the outset, although certainly some was lost in translation.
Understanding of branding is fairly limited. Certainly when compared to designers in the UK. This stems from lower quality / saturation of branding within China as a whole. While named goods carry a great deal of weight (fakes included), accompanying print and web advertising is not to the same standard that we are used to here. The Chinese are not willing to pay a premium for goods with a seductive brand image, cost is still the driving factor in purchasing decisions for the many.
All sectors of design are heavily influenced by fashions (mostly from the West). Taking product design as an example: Apple Macbook Pros, Samsung Blu-ray players, all infiltrated the field of design rapidly after their introduction to market. This of course is true for anywhere (good product design will always inspire others), but in China where ‘newness’ carries such weight, and imitations aren’t shunned to the same degree as here, the effect is much more noticeable.
So, wow, that sounded like a slating of a nations design ability. These are just things I have picked up over the past few months, and are by no means the truth for all designers / studios in China, nor necessarily negatives. I learnt a great deal during my time in Beijing. From the differences in approaches and understandings discussed above, to cultural observations, appreciation of domestic markets, and manufacturing considerations.
To other young designers, I would certainly recommend working outside the UK. It inevitably broadens your horizons, gives you a greater appreciation of what you really want to do with your career, and puts perspective on your own national heritage and design background. And with the UK job market at saturation point, it can be a wise decision.