Victor Papnek - What is Design.pdf

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Harvard University*
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Feb 10, 2024
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< Y WHAT IS DESIGNg2 A Definition of Design and the Function Complex The wheel's hub holds thirty spokes Utility depends on the hole through the hub. The potter's clay forms a vessel It is the space within that serves. A house is built with solid walls The nothingness of window and door alone renders it useable, That which exists may be transformed What is non-existent has boundless uses. LAO-TSE ALL MEN are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, fore- seeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the inherent value of design as the primary underlying matrix of life. Design is composing an epic poem, executing a mural, painting a masterpiece, writing a concerto. But de- sign is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer, pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple pie, choosing sides for a back-lot baseball game, and educating a child. Design is the conscious effort to impose meaningful order. The order and delight we find in frost flowers on a window pane, in the hexagonal perfection of a honeycomb,
4 DESIGN FOR THE REAL WORLD in leaves, or in the architecture of a rose, reflect man's pre- occupation with pattern, the constant attempt to understand an ever-changing, highly complex existence by imposing order on it—but these things are not the product of design. They possess only. the order we ascribe to them. The reason we enjoy these and other things in nature is that we see an economy of means, simplicity, elegance, and an essential rightness in them. But they are not design. Though they have pattern, order, and beauty, they lack conscious inten- tion. If we call them design, we artificially ascribe our own values to an accidental side issue. The streamlining of a trout's body is aesthetically satisfying to us, but to the trout it is a by-product of swimming efficiency. The aesthetically satisfying spiral growth pattern found in sunflowers, pine- apples, pine cones, or the arrangement of leaves on a stem can be explained by the Fibonacci sequence (each member is the sum of the two previous members: 1, 1, 2,3,5,8, 13, 21, 34 . . .), but the plant is only concerned with improv- ing photosynthesis by exposing a maximum of its surface. Similarly, the beauty we find in the tail of a peacock, although no doubt even more attractive to a peahén, is the result of intraspecific selection (which, in the case cited, may even ultimately prove fatal to the species). Intent is also missing from the random order system of a pile of coins. If, however, we move the coins around and arrange them according to size and shape, we add the ele- ment of intent and produce some sort of symmetrical align- ment. This symmetrical order system is a favorite of small children, unusually primitive peoples, and some of the in- - sane, because it is so easy to understand. Further shifting of the coins will produce an infinite number of asymmetrical arrangements which require a higher level of sophistication and greater participation on the part of the viewer to be understood and appreciated. While the aesthetic values of the symmetrical and asymmetrical designs differ, both can give ready satisfaction since the underlying intent is clear. .Only marginal patterns (those lying in the threshold area between Symmetry and asymmetry) fail to make the de- > et s' g SRR ¢ Y B ot Srermers Wi i ik 5 WHAT IS DESIGN? signer's intent clear. The ambigui.ty of t'hese ]t?)hrteshic: cases" produces a feeling of unease in th(? viewer. Bu bap xt from these threshold cases there are an mfimte num ert1 possible satisfactory arrangements of the coins. Importantly, none of these is the one right answer, though some may tter than others. . o SeeSIEoEan coins around on a board is a desig.n. act in mm;i- ture because design as a problem-solving activity <1:an nevro: by definition, yield the one right answer: it w1}'1 a }\lvay"s znd duce an infinite number of answers, some ngl tc?r and some "wronger." The "rightness" f)f any (E'le51gn sg ution u depend on the meaning with which we invest the arrang m%l(:.sign must be meaningful. And "meani1.1gfu1" {;pl:sfis- the semantically loaded noise of.such ?pr,esiloni. as "be ey ful," "ugly," "cool," "cute," "disgusting, realistic, b, scure," "abstract," and "nice," lab.els cczm'f'ement'to '?Frank rupt mind when confronted by P1cassos' Guerr'uca,stravm- Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, Bee:choYen s Eml\():;(;ke avin, sky's Le Sacre du printemps, },l]oylflci ssF::evz;ficIllr;s . nd to that which ha - o 'tI'};lzsinvZ)?iZejf (:a.ction by which a design fulfills its purpose is its function. ' ° 1"tls?'orm follows function," Loui(si SbulliI;ran 1 bzit)l;dc% ;)li; Itlltlz 1880's and 1890's, was followed by ran Trights " nd function are one." But semantically, all the sta n}::rl;ltxs1 farom Horatio Greenough to the German Bfiilhfause (:31: meaningless. The concept that what works well w11 (:h : o5 sity look well, has been the 'la:me excuse for a Jhe ster ile, operating-room-like furniture and 1mplemen' sd r e twenties and thirties. A dining tf';tble 'of the' perio . %he have a top, well proportioned in gl1sten1ng whltle; me?.fh eI:;l e legs carefully nurtured for maximum strengtd v}:1 b mink mum materials in gleamin%l stain;fss. sz(c;elli.eAdr; WL zn It xe i n encountering such a table is . fizt\:gr;:ur appendix exgtracted. Nothing ab01:1t the tagle ;Z};Z - "Dine off me." Le style intematzont'zl and die neue Sac ich keit have let us down rather badly in terms of human value.
6 Pe Corbusier's house as Ig mach Ing-crate houses evolved in the flect a perversion of aesthetics and utility "Should I design it to be fun : to be aesthetically pleasing?" most understandable, and the design today. "Do you want it Barricades erected between wh many aspects of function. It i value is an inherent part of fu show the dynamic actions an the function complex: nction. A simple diagram will d relationships that make up Figure 1: THE FUNCTION COMPLEX Use Need Method ~————Function ————__ Telesis Aesthetics Assoclation It is now possible to go through i complex (above) an é; to ugh the six parts of the function METHOD: The interaction of tools must be used op other can do the job less expensivel The steel beam in 2 house, painte molded plastic bottle designed to I glass; the 1967 New England cob y and/or more efficiently. d a fake wood grain; the ook like expensive blown bler's bench reproduction DESIGN FOR THE REAL WORLD ine a habiter and the pack- Dutch De Stijl movement re- ctional," the students say, "or This is the most heard, the most mixed-up question in to look good, or to work?" at are really just two of the s all quite simple: aesthetic WHAT IS DESIGN? 7 ("worm holes $1 extra") dragged into a twentieth-century living room to provide dubious footing for martini glass and ash tray: these are all perversions of materials, tools, and processes. And this discipline of using a suitable method extends naturally to the field of the fine arts as well. Alex- ander Calder's "The Horse," a compelling sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was shaped by the particular material in which it was conceived. Calder de- cided that boxwood would give him the specific color and texture he desired in his sculpture. But boxwood comes only in rather narrow planks of small sizes. (It is for this reason that it traditionally has been used in the making of small boxes: hence its name.) The only way he could make a fair- sized piece of sculpture out of a wood that only comes in small pieces was to interlock them somewhat in the manner of a child's toy. "The Horse," then, is a piece of sculpture, the aesthetic of which was largely determined by method. For the final execution at the Museum of Modern Art Calder chose to use thin slats of walnut, a wood similar in texture. When early Swedish settlers in what is now Delaware decided to build, they had at their disposal trees and axes. The material was a round tree trunk, the tool an ax, and the process a simple kerf cut into the log. The inevitable result of this combination of tools, materials, and process is a log cabin. From the log cabin in the Delaware Valley of 1680 to Paolo Soleri's desert home in twentieth-century Arizona is no jump at all. Soleri's house is as much the inevitable result Alexander Calder: "The Horse" (1928). Walnut, 15% x 343%. Col- lection The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest.
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