Welcome, Members of Parliament

Welcome, Members of Parliament. This blog is designed to act as a student forum for anyone enrolled in my classes at a Dallas-area proprietary college, former students, and/or others who find our conversations interesting. The Parliament will be moderated to ensure civility and relevance. The directions we take, the paths we follow, and the concerns we address are all up to you.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Design and Stuff

For my first Summer quarter post, I was inspired by an article in Good about whether or not it's possible for designers to save the world without creating more stuff. Material objects are, after all, the focus of our design programs at AiDallas. What would to design mean if we weren't focused on creating objects?

One of the major revelations to come out of my first week of classes (and I don't know why this hadn't occurred to me before) was that in the ancient world, people made things carefully because they couldn't just go down to their local Buy More and get a replacement when something broke. There probably wasn't much garbage to pick up, because early economies weren't based on disposable objects. Everything was designed with its purpose in mind, and the designs (as we learn from Uhlmeyer's Rule of Technological Development #312) endured when technologies changed. That's why the early ceramic jugs in neolithic Turkey looked just like the baskets they had replaced as water carriers.

In our art & design history discussions during these first two weeks of classes, we've talked about the notion of "art for art's sake"--the nineteenth-century idea that "fine" art was qualitatively better than "applied" art because it was made for no purpose other than its beauty. But the Greeks and Romans made beautiful things that all had uses: funerary or heroic statues, painted pottery for drinking wine, temples for worshiping gods, etc. The words they used for art (techne and ars) both contained the idea that the objects be well-crafted, skillfully wrought.

Archaeologists love ancient dumps (middens) because they contain clues about the people who occupied the sites under study. But those dumps rarely contain objects discarded whole--only broken bits of things. Acoma Pueblo native Americans actually gather old potsherds to add to new pots made using traditional techniques, wasting nothing. In fact, the reason Indiana Jones isn't a believable archaeologist is that he just takes whole objects out of context--something no reputable scientist would ever do. The real guys in the safari hats get their kicks out of finding bits and pieces that can be put back together to give us an idea about what they originally looked like and what they were used for. Just about the only time we find collections of intact artifacts is when they've been buried by some disaster, like the eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius or Thera.

I hadn't realized before this week that the archaeology exercise my humanities students do (figuring out what random objects in a box might "mean") is more realistic than I'd imagined, because the stuff in the boxes is all twenty-first century junk: miscellaneous bits of useless crap randomly put together, just like what future archaeologists are going to find in our landfills. Cheesy little toys from Happy Meals, broken crayons, miscellaneous buttons, and junky jewelry are going to tell our story more potently than a museum full of art works.

In the opening photograph, all of the items pictured could be recycled; instead some idiot (or idiots) left them in a pine forest somewhere. The plastics will be there just about forever--and somebody designed every one of these objects.

So here's the question: how do fashion, interior, web, graphic, and other designers create without just adding more junk to the growing mounds of waste on this planet?

Image credit: Photo by Michelangelo-36, via Wikimedia Commons.


Anonymous said...

I absolutely believe we designers can and should create without making more junk.

One of my biggest complaints that I have is that we seem to have become a disposable society. Everything is made so cheaply that it doesn't last or we don't take care of it because we know its cheap to replace. I can't tell you how many cheap little book shelves and tv stands from Target that we've gone thru, you can go to any apartment dumpster in Dallas at months end and you invariably will find at least a couch or two and all kinds of furniture in various stages of decay. There was a time when furniture was built so well it was passed down for generations.

Everything has gone down in quality in the name of saving a buck from furniture to coke bottles. Which is another annoyance because the plastic coke bottles never seem to get as cold as the old glass bottles, but I digress. Its not as if these products work better, in most cases they aren't nearly as good they are just cheaper or easier.

This system by the way also allows the wealthy to stay wealthy and keeps the poor struggling to make it. Think about it, a rich man will go by a high quality hand crafted book shelf that will last a generation spending perhaps $400, while the poor man without that much money will go to Target and spend $80 for a cheap bookcase. But then every year and a half or so he is back in Target buying that same bookshelf because its already falling apart so in a ten year span he has gone thru 8 bookshelves easily outspending the wealthy man who still has his nice bookshelf.

The solution to this problem is simple. We as designers have to start designing and making things that last, and that are durable so that we aren't throwing them away. If things are lasting longer we're making fewer and thus fewer things are thrown out. And many things can be reused, I remember gathering empty coke bottles to get the deposit on them, and the metal coffee cans we would reuse for everything under the sun. We as designers and as consumers have to start thinking about quality not just price. Even us Graphic Designers need to use our designs to promote this message to the masses. It will save us money and it just may help us save the world as well.

Owlfarmer said...

You make a better argument than I do, Wayne, and I appreciate the time you took to contribute this comment. I'm going to link the post to this week's Farm entry, because it's directly related--so you've actually helped me make a similar point on two blogs. Thanks a million--and do come back.