DESIGN: THE USELESSNESS OF USEFUL?
My name is Fabio Di Bartolomei and I am a designer by profession; therefore in the common conception of this term I design “beautiful” things, of various types, but substantially “beautiful”. This is what one commonly thinks to find in design and it is also the most mistaken of beliefs. Instead a designer should be the person who, using his/her creativity produces ideas that resolve several needs of daily life while giving them an aesthetic form. These represent what people would like to have, at times even without a precise awareness. I do not wish to be misunderstood, the designer is not a saviour of the world, but he or she can certainly work so that a project resolves several daily problems. Let’s think of a handle that might be produced in conformance in a particular way to facilitate its grip for those with disabilities, or studied so as not to require any grip, such as those pushed open used in the panic safety doors, two solutions designed for the same object but, for different particular situations, both facilitated the opening of a door. Let us therefore define what a good design object is: to be considered thusly it must unite three important aspects, function as a sociological analysis of the needs of the person to whom the designer’s attention is directed, which is born within a historical-social evolution, technology as a means to produce the object and industry, that is to say, the relationship between those who must give concrete form to the object and offer it on the market. This might seem simple. But where are the complications? This “poor” designer – please allow me a bit of healthy self-pity – must combat numerous variables. His or her project, even if in fact perfect, and produced according to all the criteria expressed previously, will be analysed by many sectors in different ways: companies will request a product that is cheap, easy to produce and involves perhaps little investment; the merchants would like it to be attractive for their clientele, and of course need to sell the product; the purchaser looks first at the image that the object has and then at the price and perhaps also thinks of the prestige that owning it might offer; later, when they return home, they begin to use it and reflect on its functionality and ease of use. In addition to what I have just mentioned there is still one important point which opens a chapter of the world of design which both designers and manufacturers should consider more in depth: The ease of use of the object. I have recently read a book on the subject written by the psychologist Donald A. Norman. He relates design to three different Conceptual Models: the Project Model, or what the designer has in mind, the guidelines that will bring him to design that particular thing so that the creation will be easily usable. To obtain that, the designers base themselves naturally on their own personal cultural background which is made up of study, research, experience, characteristics which all together stimulate the creativity upon which the project is based; the User Model, or what the user perceives about the object to comprehend its use. These two models should coincide and therefore produce objects of easy use. The concept just described is often not realised because the cultural bases, by which I mean the background indicated above, of the designer and the user, rarely coincide. Those bases speak through the object, its shapes, colours etc. and therefore comprehension of its use must come through a System Image. It is important therefore for the designer to simplify comprehension of the use of the project, so that each thing finds its own place, located where we expect it to be. I once had in my studio a fax that was always switched on. One day I had to switch it off, and to do this I could not find the “off” button. I did not take very long, but I had to examine it at many angles, lift it up, shift it from its position next to the wall, and behind it at the bottom I glimpsed a switch hidden by the paper tray of the fax; certainly the position was not the right one. This is a minor and perhaps banal example, but if we relate that to many of the objects of common use which surround us and which we purchase, you will see that the problem often exists. A beautiful object comes to my mind; the orange-squeezer “Juicy Salif” designed by Philippe Stark, to understand the utility of this object, you must try to use it. If you are good the juice will not drop along your arm... good luck. In effect, offering a comprehensible system image does not mean rendering the object banal – it may very well be strong, innovative, rebellious and anything else we wish to propose; what is important is that if we speak of an object of common use, the comprehension of its function and its use must be accessible to the user.