Order or chaos?

There is a lot to be known when one sets out to design products. Probably too much. The complexities of production have multiplied with advances in technology and now its unlikely that an individual will be able to obtain a comprehension sense of what can be done and how to do it.

Paul Epp

It remains incumbent upon designers to know a lot but there are limits to what an individual can either grasp or retain. So now a lot of design work is undertaken by teams. They may be formally organized within a company or they may be de facto arrangements, comprised of a range of individuals even within a range of organizations, who collectively contribute to a shared outcome.

This seems to be a reasonable arrangement for the accomplishment of common goals. In fact, it allows individuals to work to their strengths. It is unlikely, although not impossible, for people to be equally talented across areas of potential specialization. Design is one such area and technology, or the making of things, another. Designers usually benefit from working with others who have a superior understanding of how things can be made. I recall reading an interview with the Danish master furniture designer Hans Wegner, who expressed some scepticism about the Studio Furniture phenomenon in the United States. He thought the odds weren’t good that a single designer/maker would be adequately gifted in both design and production, to ensure the best results (with, of course, some latitude for exceptions). And he was trained as a cabinetmaker himself.

When I was a design student, in a school that prioritized learning through direct interaction with materials and tools in proper Bauhaus fashion, it occurred to me that my scope as a designer would be enhanced by a better understanding of production. I was lucky enough to secure what was then called a (very modest) apprenticeship and now would be called an internship, with Craftwood Industries. The proprietor, Gary Sonnenberg, took this arrangement seriously and made a point of exposing me to the full range of operations. Thanks to him, my scope was, in fact, enhanced. Many other subsequent work and educational experiences have increased my understanding of technology even more and I feel have contributed to my capacity as a designer.

However, while designing for industry, I have usually had to receive the assistance of technical staff whose understanding of the specific job at hand was superior to my own. And as an academic, teaching product design, I have relied on technical staff to assist my students in the realization of their material dreams. And these interactions have brought me to consider the differences in these roles.

Designers, by the demands of their job, must behave in what I might describe as a liberal way. They must be open to ideas, possibilities and questions. They must retain a great latitude for the considerations of novel and even revolutionary prospects. Their role is to be transformative. In contrast, the custodians of technical knowledge will typically behave in what I might describe as a conservative way. Their role is to protect and perpetuate a body of knowledge that must be treated with great respect and which ought to be suspicious of radical ideas.

So a dynamic is established that will likely contain some elements of divergence and disagreement. This situation is, occasionally, exasperated by a cultural tendency to privilege the results of cerebral activity over that which appears to be manual. Our society tends to reward and acknowledge those that work with their minds over those that work with their hands. That the foundation of our industrialized society is dependent upon those that understand and perpetuate technical expertise is often left unacknowledged.

This inherent difference in attitude and operation is fundamental to the performance of product design. The designer must be open to new ideas and the technical expertise that is brought to bear must be cautious and careful. Together, advances are made. The designers have to push the technical people and they, in turn, have to push back. The maintenance of a friendly and mutually respectful relationship is critical, even though it can be, at times, challenging. It is useful for designers to remember that eventually, if they are successful, they will in turn rely on their technical compatriots to conserve the changes that they have mutually secured.

Liberal and conservative. Or, expressed differently: order and chaos. Apollo and Dionysus. We need the dynamic of these divergent positions to stay productively balanced, even though it’s not always easy or comfortable. It’s just the way it is. Sounds a bit like politics, doesn’t it?

Paul Epp is an adjunct professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.


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