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. 

Logistics

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. 

Composing

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. 

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