Designer and writer Ed van Hinte charts technical innovations in the field of design. On 19 April 2015 he spoke in Milan at 'Goodesign - The Natural Circle', an event about susainable production and eco design. On 19 November 2015 he discussed similar issues during the Thursday Night: Let's Go Nano! Het Nieuwe Instituut invited him to write the essay below.
Designers create all sorts of things, from tangible products for use or decoration to solutions to social problems, services and proposals.
For the group of designers who make three-dimensional objects, the assumptions about industrial production no longer correspond to today’s possibilities.
The so-called ‘formal idiom’ of such designers is utterly anachronistic. That is not true for everyone to the same degree and in the same way, but the point is that the objects they design are generally conventional. Designers are more likely to conform to convention than to investigate fully the possibilities afforded by industry. You might say there is much catching up to be done and therefore opportunities for exciting progress. My intention is to indicate a future direction for what we call the ‘creative industries’.
We can distinguish between three different types of object designers. Firstly, there are those with a personal, in some cases renowned, signature who produce more or less exclusive products for an esoteric clientele. They are fond of terms such as ‘essence’ and ‘simplicity’ and lean towards ‘geometric’, ‘pure’, ‘transparent’ and ‘honest’ designs based on a definite idea. Their knowledge of materials comes from the experience of making things, but they know little about what happens at the level of crystals and molecules and transformation. What they make falls into the category ‘design’, so let’s call them ‘designers’.
Then there are the ‘designers’ who mostly work as anonymous employees for mass production on the basis of market research. Their background is more about sound knowledge than practical experience. For decades their products varied stylistically between Art Deco, streamline, functionalism and a universal style that you could call ‘objectivist’, all under the constant pressure of technological progress and cost cutting.
Finally, there are ‘architects’ who mainly design simple volumes on the basis of an analysis of user requirements. There are various styles they may identify with. Which of these predominates is determined by their economic viability in any particular economic period and clients’ preferences for certain architects. Design and construction are highly fragmented in comparison with other sectors. Architects’ technical knowledge and language, to the extent they have it, is rooted in the building tradition. They view materials primarily in terms of visual expression and ‘materiality’.
What went before
I will now sketch, in rough terms, the industrial development that provides the backdrop to the current design scene.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, when large-scale mass production had already seen half a century of development, it was the metal industry that held the greatest promise. Production was still largely a matter of handwork. To manufacture large numbers of items you had to keep things simple.
That was the origin of the geometric styling that is still considered ‘aesthetic’ both in the parochial world of design and in that of architecture. I name the professions separately because they are now truly different planets. It is high time they learned from each other again.
In the 1920s and 1930s mass production came of age with the development of machines and moulds that could produce complex components and products. The automobile, despite its high investment risk, became the mother of all industrial products. The principle of the necessity of simple forms disappeared from the stage quicker than it had appeared. Large numbers kept cost prices low and simultaneously forced high sales figures. Designers who worked for industry contributed to the latter by investing form with meaning through styling. Their independent colleagues, who had developed an affinity with sober functionalism, decried this development without fully realising that their own idea of industrial simplicity, which quickly acquired the – now prevailing – aura of chic and exclusivity, was also a form of styling intended to appeal to certain ‘target groups’.
From the middle of the twentieth century industrial production gradually shifted to regions with low labour costs, in particular the Far East and, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe. This was not a new trend but was simply the acceleration of an existing phenomenon. Half a century earlier industry had been banished to poorer regions, initially within our own borders.
For designers in the Netherlands the retreat of industrial production abroad meant that they had to take things into their own hands, also because they were often not taken seriously by industry. As design for mass production globalised, designers in the Netherlands began to make their own products. As more and more products were imported from distant lands and the major side effects of mass production –environmental damage and climate change – became clearer, designers – especially in the Netherlands – became cocky. Initially this meant that they explored new possibilities in product design, which could be described as ‘anti-slick’. This was the emergence of Dutch design. Its pendant in the world of architecture was Super Dutch, although the latter was not a result of the retreat of production. On the contrary, construction flourished on the illusion of economic prosperity and growing international demand for a brutal and playful modernism exemplified by Dutch architects.
In the meantime industry continued to make products better and cheaper. Innovation took place mainly in the wake of electronic miniaturisation along a predictable trajectory: smaller, lighter, cheaper. Software followed the new developments with proportionately more code.
Growing possibilities led to, for example, computer games becoming more and more realistic. The effort involved left little room for new ideas about gaming and interaction with reality. Mass miniaturisation means that technically complex gadgets from China are available here at give-away prices.
Designers were unable to slot into this development and went in search of alternatives: alternatives to the design of products and alternatives to the existing system of economic growth with its attendant environmental cost. Their field of activity expanded beyond that of the object. And so too did that of architects, as a consequence of decreased construction as a result of economic stagnation. Designers and architects began to design services, to solve problems with so-called ‘concepts’ and to work increasingly with people within and outside their own disciplines.
The arsenal of prefixes to the word ‘design’ has now grown out of control, as Alastair Fuad-Luke has identified: co-design, process design, web design, social design, lifestyle design. Everything now appears to be designable.
This fits wonderfully with our ever-present feelings of guilt about all the damage we have done to the planet under the illusion of abundance. This complaint does not need repeating here, but it feeds the notion that humanity is rapidly gambling away its chances of survival: it is high time for a ‘transition’ to a less wasteful system. We are desperately looking for a way out.
Journalist Joris Luijendijk has suggested it would help if women stopped falling in love with bankers.
Others hope that volatile oil prices will leave the road open for economically stable suppliers of wind power and solar energy. Designers and architects put their hopes in small-scale and local production. There is unlikely to be a simple solution to all problems. My own optimism rests upon the observation that, despite everything, people learn from each other and from their own mistakes.
Remarkably enough, the desire for small-scale production has resulted in competition from an unexpected source. Not only has industrial production retreated from northwest Europe, now the design profession feels it is under threat from end-users with access to affordable 3D printers. For designers it is almost a Pavlovian response to avail themselves of one of these devices. In China houses are now being printed at a rate of ten per day. For the format and quality that is not very fast.
Technology finds its way. Much is possible, but certainly not everything. Designer Bas van Beek discovered that translating Frank Lloyd Wright design drawings for glasswork by into a 3D-printed model is a virtually impossible. It seems that printing complex combinations of materials will not be possible in the short term and it seems unlikely that everyone will start developing and printing products on a large scale. In contrast to what designers often think, not everyone covets their profession. But access to fast, affordable computers with gigabytes of storage has certainly altered the relationship. And in this respect, certainly in the beginning, banality had the upper hand: copying and idiocy. And people do not like technical problems. Don’t set expectations too high, because the development will only take a different direction, fed by unforeseen pragmatism.
Google Glass has also gone in a different direction than expected because the headset drives the wearer mad. 'Uncool' is deadly.
So much for the technological evolution. In recent decades the global industrial landscape has taken on a very different character due to specialisation. Previously, until roughly the 1950s, companies manufactured every component of a product themselves. That is no longer possible. It is more cost-effective to outsource certain processes or components.
This explanation comes from Adriaan Beukers, Professor Emeritus of Design and Production of Composite Structures at Delft Technical University. It is a generally accepted rule that transportation costs are approximately five per cent of the total production cost. A result of this is that the lighter and costlier a product the more profitable it is to transport it across long distances. That was also true centuries ago with the Silk Road, along which costly products were transported by camel from the Far East to Europe. Xi Jinping is now ushering in a network of Silk Railroads. There are already rail links between Chongqing and Hamburg and between Yi Wu, near Shanghai, and Madrid. And there are more to come. They will plug the gap between expensive air freight and large-scale container transportation. Unbelievably large quantities of products are heading our way. And for China, Europe is the main supplier of luxury goods such a high fashion. Oh, and baby food.
One example of product globalisation is the company Dutch Thermoplastic Composites (DTC) in Lelystad. This firm produces aircraft components measuring from half a metre to a metre intended for fuselage construction, seats and doors. It is all handwork. Some types of aircraft require hundreds of different components from DTC. They are delivered to a company in Japan, which uses them to make larger components that are then flown to the United States to be assembled by Boeing.
Similar production lines exist for electronic goods. I have not asked for details, but ASML in Veldhoven, which builds machines for the production of computer chips, ‘spans the globe’. There is a fair chance that the Bluetooth loudspeaker that you can buy for just a few euros at Alibaba contains a chip produced by a machine from ASML. It would be interesting, for an insight into corporate relations, to scrutinise down the last little drop of lithium, where all the materials come from in a certain mass product, such as headphones, and where they end up at the end of the product lifecycle.
The refinement of many current products, such as the smartphone, is barely comprehensible. If it had been possible to demonstrate one to me in 1985, I would probably have thought it was made from an extraordinary material: that level of miniaturisation of components was then inconceivable. And it remains so, for the majority of smartphone users have no idea what goes on behind the luminous screens of their devices.
When you open a site, ‘hi-speed auctions’ of advertising space take place for adverts tailored to your lifestyle and consumer habits. And this is only possible because millions of tiny components spread across countless devices are able to communicate with each other.
This level of refinement is also evident in other product characteristics, such as strength, rigidity etc. For more than half a century Fokker has glued together aircraft fuselage panels and wing components. By adhering layers of aluminium to each other with a sort of double-sided sticky foil that is ‘fixed’ under high pressure in a kiln, they create a ‘material’ that is lighter than aluminium alone yet just as stiff. [HNI’s theme ‘Glue’ can be seen as the first step to a composite look at constructions]. Plate thickness can easily be varied by adhering more or fewer layers. With a little imagination, you can see this gluing layers together as a form of 3D printing.
The layers provide rigidity. Meanwhile the glue prevents fractures (metal fatigue) in the aluminium as a result of fluctuating stresses. The glue adheres so strongly to an oxide layer applied to the aluminium because of what can now be understood as a form of nanotechnology. Before the firing process the glue trickles into a honeycomb of tens of millions of pores per square millimetre.
Viewed from this perspective, wood is not a material but a construction, which serves to keep a tree upright, to provide it with nutrients, to carry away waste and to protect it against weather and fire. (S)he who uses wood to make furniture ignores its original function and refinement. It is not easy to make a real working tree from another material. Nonetheless, you can combine different materials to make them do what is expected of them, such as insulation, sound dampening, light reflection, gravity compensation or to make them change form in a certain way.
A manufactured product is, in short, no longer what it was: a composite of related components. We can now look at it with microscopic eyes. With the benefit of rapidly advancing knowledge, the accent has shifted from the generally accepted idea of packing as much value as possible into a minimum of materials towards matching and combining elements at a microscopic or nanoscopic scale. A smartphone, for example, consists of millions of components but hardly any screws. Automotive designers are now working on the integration of wiring by printing it on panels, spelling the end of the notorious ‘cable tree’: a bundle of dozens of electric cables with offshoots. The car is becoming a smartphone.
Most designers are not used to thinking of ‘materials’ as designed composites. Indeed it is still unusual for technicians who work in this field to think in this way. Even in the world of composite technology, composites are usually seen as ‘materials’ even though they are constructions designed for a particular application. It is industrial designers who perhaps come closest to accepting this reality. Designers are not accustomed to the idea of materials as design, even if that idea is not entirely new. Indeed it was the subject of Ezio Manzini’s book The Material of Invention, published as early as 1989. The design of constructions that can be considered materials does not chime with the convention that as a designer you choose a material for a particular purpose. Some designers, especially product designers, do have insights into processes but are unlikely to have detailed knowledge of the reasons why a specific material or construction is used for a particular application. For example, they may find the honeycomb construction fascinating but have no insight into its origins.
In addition there is – in my experience – a certain resistance to combining materials because proponents of cradle-to-cradle design have promoted the idea that everything should be recyclable. But the situation is not so simple.
Recycling uses energy to destroy value and is therefore not always the best solution.
It is more sensible to strive to maintain economic value for as long as possible (Products that Last) and thus employ the shredder only when there is no alternative.
In the construction world the idea of designing for re-use is taking root because many buildings contain large components that can relatively easily be adapted to new uses. The drawback to the building as a stack of large elements is that architects and urban planners think big and therefore pay scant attention to the idea of saving materials through intelligent combinations. Glass, steel and concrete remains the convention. There are intrusions by companies with a different approach. The market for bridges made from fibre-reinforced resins is growing rapidly because of the environmental benefits and savings on maintenance costs. And there is a growing interest in composites for architectural cladding panels.
It would be interesting if designers looked more frequently at their work at the micro or nano level as explorers or pioneers of composite materials created by combining characteristics, while conversely new characteristics can emerge through experimentation.
That could result in new proposals and promote a connection with the way industry is used to thinking.
The New Material Award, which promotes the ‘innovative and sustainable use of materials’, shows that new ideas are bubbling up. It is not inconceivable that ideas for entirely new types of objects will emerge. The chances are perhaps greater for experiments with ingredients that have never previously had a functional application, such as fungi. (Though this may not be as ‘new’ as we think. I recently read that tens of thousands of years ago humans had already discovered that you could avoid certain diseases by covering the floor of your house with certain leaves.) It is not easy to set such a process in motion. Universities focus more on the development of knowledge than on its application. And traditionally fungi have found their application in the food industry not in product design.
Leiden University is experimenting with so-called ‘mechanical metamaterials’. These are constructions that do not exist in nature and which behave differently to how you might expect at various scales. Think of a cylinder that gets thicker when you pull on both ends. The principle is not complicated: think of an origami crane that flaps its wings when you pull on its head and tail. It is simply a matter of a form that enforces certain ‘abnormal’ behaviour.
There is a certain affinity with the principle of inbuilt material behaviour in the field of aerodynamics. That is called ‘elastic tailoring’. The ends of rotor blades can be ‘programmed’ via the ordering of fibres so that above a certain number of revolutions they adopt a state that slows movement through air pressure and rotational force. It is a good example of how you can design behaviour through material combinations. This can be applied to force, but also to insulation, translucency, humidity or air purification. And let’s not forget something as familiar as colour or invisibility. This brings us back to metamaterials of a different kind that can steer light in a curve around an object, rendering it invisible.
There is another interesting field of exploration that is gradually growing. The availability of low-cost technical products makes it possible for designers to experiment with objects that display a certain behaviour by fiddling around with them. I did a project at the Rietveld Academie about sound and three students discovered that loudspeakers walk if you attach legs to them and play sounds through them.
There are opportunities enough for experiments but it is important to look critically at the results. If they are useful, entertaining or funny then the next question is whether they will remain so in the long run. Chris Kabel showed a film of several such experiments. The only one that stood up, literally and figuratively, was a vase that could balance on a diagonal because of a rotating flywheel in its base.
Behaviour can be interesting in its own right. People or groups can also display behaviour in correlation to the behaviour of things. That is the case with a chair, obviously, or another object onto which a designer has projected a stereotypical function. The freedom that designers seek renounces the classical idea of functionality. That is not so strange if you think that there are already so many things with a known function that that is no longer necessarily useful. Thus the meaning that people (let us dispense with the word ‘user’ for the time being) derive from a thing made up of materials and found components or the interaction they enter into with it becomes part of the endeavour. Roos Meerman works in this way with inflating 3D prints. Its origin is clear: striving for a reduction of control by torturing and deforming precisely printed plastic shapes with hot air and water. This could well be the start of a new research field.
In scientific material research it is about knowledge development. In design tests such as Meerman’s it is possibly about bringing together people and the activity of making something. It might be that an experiment leads to further developments or that it informs a new kind of interaction, drama perhaps. Such an experiment might even lead to partnerships between different groups of people.
Understanding each other and collaboration: that is what supports the domain of material development. There are so many groups involved who respect each other and yet who do not understand each other’s commitment.
That is very noticeable among designers and architects. I started by describing them separately in order to sketch their differences. Engineering designers, who work for industry, see themselves as problem solvers. Their training has a systematic structure based on the notion of solving functional problems. That leads to a certain blandness.
Designers oriented towards cultural expression are trained to reason and make things based on their personal ‘fascinations’, as they are called nowadays. There is a greater chance that something extraordinary will emerge. Nonetheless, where designers sometimes fall short is in weighing up alternatives. The first decision comes too quickly: 'I have chosen for this…’ There is also a kind of love-hate relationship with knowledge. While one designer would like to have more knowledge of materials and technology, another prefers to know as little as possible for fear of being over-influenced.
Designers who work in industry and independent designers should be able to complement each other. That is something I have heard ever since I became involved in this profession, yet the collaboration doesn’t seem to work. Attempts are regularly made within the rigid structure of design education. But maybe it would work better beyond the academy, by stimulating joint initiatives.
And that goes further because architects are very good at mapping and arranging dynamic processes and systems but beyond the building tradition they are not well informed about the possibilities for materialisation. People with different (academic) backgrounds can inject insights and metaphors that can lead designers in new directions. I recently heard a lecture by an anthropologist, Stéphane Renesson, who made an in-depth study of men in Thailand who make a living from beetle fighting. The Rhinoceros beetles do battle in a ‘boxing ring’ in the form of a log, which each beetle owner holds at one end. They communicate with their respective beetles through vibrations caused by scraping or tapping the log with a wooden stylus. It is a form of intuitive language that was unfamiliar to both anthropologists and entomologists. It is an example of a new 'intermediate knowledge’ with interesting potential. The researcher is considering its application in robotics. In more general terms, it is important to create conditions where intermediate zones are opened up. That is where discoveries can be made.
At the Sandberg Institute three groups of students are currently working on a temporary 'System D' Master programme. One group is focussing on bridging the differences between the culture of science and that of the economic life on the campus of Utrecht University. They are exploring possibilities of poetic interventions to bring these two worlds closer together in order to create episodes that go further than simply looking at problems and solutions.
Companies from different worlds could also learn from each other.
Sometimes something wonderful emerges from a solution to a clear technical problem. In Delft a company has been set up that has developed an aerodynamic system for Ferrari to suck air out through the siding.
An ideal solution was found in the porous material used to make felt-tip pens.
But there could be more opportunities for such discoveries. Designers should be capable of designing encounters. Elisa van Joolen provides an excellent example with her Tabloid project, for which she asked fashion labels to provide her with remnants. Her reasoning: all those brands use their logos to market themselves, but consumers care very little about that and happily combine various labels. Her plan: to create garments by combining tabloid-format cut-outs from clothes from a variety of brands. Her aim: to bring together different companies through the presentation of her clothes. And that worked.
This case involved an encounter between similar companies, but with a little imagination you can discover many other possibilities, such as designer Joris de Groot who combined the techniques of a supplier of custom-fit interiors and the welding technology of an industrial plastic-mounting company in the design of three stools.
Contrary to what many people think, design is not essentially problem solving. That is certainly a part of what you do, but the initial brief often stems from recognising possibilities and not from identifying a problem. Initiating encounters that might result in collaborations is one such possibility.
Image and language
Themes emerge: making, logistics, and communication. The making component dances around a new image of the construction of things. Construction begins at the very smallest level and blossoms, as it were, into combinations of materials with desired properties that together form a concept. Such a nanoscopic starting point can lead to the development of new conceptions of design. It is therefore essential to provide an insight into the nano-world and the global logistics of production.
Small is also alive: refined construction is familiar from living materials. It is no longer a strange idea to generate functionality from living organisms. It might be interesting to see what it means if plants and animals migrate from surface decoration to the core, where they can become useful.
This new perspective on combinations relates to the idea of 'mass- customisation' via 3D printing, which simultaneously provides hope for the democratisation of design and production while engendering fear among designers that it implies a one-way ticket to oblivion. It is worthwhile defining precisely what we are talking about.
Logistics relates directly to making: what happens where? Designers, who are more independent than ever, can have things made all over the world. In some cases it is simply a matter of production, others serve an idealistic goal by providing employment for people in India or Nepal.
Products can be rooted anywhere and can be perceived as nodes within networks.
It is interesting to follow these interconnecting lines: to deliver a pot of yoghurt a van must drive so many hundreds of kilometres. What are the figures for an mp3 speaker from Guangzhou or a BMW Mini? The same is true for buildings. What is the carbon footprint of Rem Koolhaas’ building De Rotterdam or a house in Leidsche Rijn?
The third theme is collaboration, which consists primarily of sharing knowledge, experience and language. The greatest threat to this long-cherished dream among different groups of designers is simply habit. It is not unwillingness but affinity with certain things and also a certain mentality that stands in the way of bridge building. And then there are assumptions about what ‘others’ do. During a discussion about social design led by an architect or an architectural historian, the moderator equated the relationship between government and designers with that between government and architects. But that is an entirely different story.
Designers of unspecified type but possessed of a desire to develop relationships should be able to initiate collaboration or at the very least make each other’s acquaintance. As the mutual insight between different organisations grows, there are more opportunities for the exchange of principles, perspectives and trade. Why wouldn’t an insurance company be able to learn something from a manufacturer of bicycle components and vice versa?
It should be obvious that universities also have a part to play in all this. And not only those faculties that can clearly produce applicable knowledge; I believe it can go further than that. The knowledge that an architect can bring to, for example, the history of shipping, and the transport historian’s perspective on building could lead to fruitful ideas. That needn’t happen on a daily basis. It is enough if people simply meet and learn to understand each other’s language.
Essay by Ed van Hinte