There’s something about good design that is deeply satisfying. Whether you’re handling a sleek domestic product or sinking back into a luxury car, there’s an undeniable frisson of excitement, a sense of the rightness of the crafted object.
It can be difficult to pin down the allure of fine design – much less determine what constitutes it – but its eye-catching appeal is a constant.
“People are drawn to beautiful things,” says Dr Paul Harrison, an expert in consumer behaviour at Deakin University and visiting professor at Milan’s Università Cattolica. “The response is deeply instinctive and emotional, even if our ideas of beauty vary with social and are personal tastes.”
In many ways, design has defined and refined those tastes. Near-constant interaction has created a design-literate public, with an appreciation for an aesthetic that often leans toward elegant minimalism and the sleek, industrial look of the Bauhaus. But while we are well placed to admire an object’s beauty, the appeal runs deeper than that.
“Owning a piece of design is not only aesthetically rewarding,” says Harrison, “it’s an emotionally honest way of announcing who you are and shares that with others for whom it’s also important, reinforcing a sense of belonging.”
Dr Brandon Gien, CEO of Good Design Australia, says looks will only get you so far. “If a product doesn’t match a quality aesthetic with superior function, it won’t last,” he says. “Those that break new ground, that do the job in an almost invisible way, are the game changers.”
Gien points to the iPhone as a groundbreaker par excellence. While the styling is enticing, the real innovation is its usability. “The first iPhone didn’t need an instruction book. Using it was intuitive and instinctive, playing on the sense of discovery and delight.” Its tactile nature worked to cement this positive experience in the mind; not only is it an innovative design, it’s a stunning example of design psychology.
“It transformed the industry within a few years,” says Gien, noting its equally rapid impact on our daily habits. Social-network apps, mobile banking and digital assistants are de rigueur today, but Gien says we need to be careful with this design-led social innovation. “Technology is only going to get faster and more integral,” he says. “the opportunity is in how we design these to changes enrich our daily lives, not make us slaves to our devices.”
Placing people at the heart of design is key to a product’s success. In the past, designers worked to a client’s brief with little other input; but today, designers and makers co-design with their prospective customers. “The aim is to develop a rich understanding of how people engage with objects in the everyday world,” says RMIT University’s Dr Scott Mayson. “Bringing people into the design process gives a clear picture of what their needs are across a broad spectrum, which can spark design speculation and refine the product.”
“Streamlining a product’s functioning is always important, especially framing information to reduce the user’s cognitive load- presenting information for the ways people naturally think and process, making the product easier to learn and easier to use,” says Mayson. “A product where every aspect is considered and works together immaculately creates a valuable experience and makes a strong emotional connection.”
Unsurprisingly, it was the Italians who first made fine design widely accessible. In the country’s postwar economic boom, chic consumers were hungry for the latest fashions and everyday objects were designed for modern flair as much as their usefulness. Pre-eminent architect and designer Ettore Sottsass summed up the new vibe when he famously declared “Functionalism is not enough. Design should be sensual and exciting.”
In 1955, kitchenware maker Alessi pioneered a new kind of collaboration between designers and manufacturing. Unique for the time, Alessi did not downplay but instead celebrated the designer’s role, partnering with the likes of Philippe Starck and Alessandro Mendini, and recently Australians Lisa Vincitorio and Adam Cornish.
Alessi became a household name, along with companies like Kartell and Cassina and, in 1980, Sottsass’s Memphis Group. They were lauded for creating everyday objects that showed a commitment to design excellence at every step of the manufacturing process. For the first time, master craftsmanship and high-end design were brought into the centre of daily life.
“Design is a reflection of what’s happening in the world at the time,” say Ryan Russell and Byron George, the award-winning directors of global design practice Russell & George. “The Memphis Group, like the Bauhaus before it, was a visionary response to how people wanted to live and work, and aimed to enhance the experience of living in that moment.”
But because design is a product of its time, it runs the risk of becoming stale. “Mid-century modern, for example, is extraordinary design,” say the duo. “It was affordable, modern and less formal, exactly the tastes of the ’50s and ’60s. But it was quickly overused and as times changed, it was seen as outdated then as cliché. The ideas that drive innovations are easy to lose out of context.” But, as the two point out, design is cyclical. “Important ideas will always come back to the fore.”
While designers often speak of lineages, Maserati regards its classic models as its lifeblood. “Our history is all around us every day,” says Rossella Guasco, manager of colour and material designgesturing to photographs of models . While a few models such as the 1954 A6GCS and 1960 Ghibli have become iconic, Guasco feels all models are important chapters in the company’s story. “Our mission now is to create timeless designs that don’t date.”
Unlike many manufacturers, Maserati’s design teams work closely together in order to conceptualise the car as a whole. “The engineering can be an inspiration to the designers and vice versa,” Guasco says. “We consider the interior and exterior together when we think about technology, lines and materials so that each complements the other. It’s like da Vinci’s Vitruvian man: everything is strongly connected, harmonious, well-proportioned and balanced. It gives the design a distinctive character – a soul.”
Her enduring inspiration is Italian culture, art and history. “We draw inspiration from everything,” she says, “food and wine, regional architecture and always, always nature: the tones of rocky outcrops and vineyards and water over stones.”
There’s also Maserati’s heritage to uphold, and the traditional workmanship that defines the brand. “We look for the highest standards of craftsmanship, but we are also willing to experiment – to reinterpret the traditions in novel ways. That has always been the creative genius of Italian culture.”
Guasco’s process blends the artisanal with cutting-edge technology. “In the beginning it was all practical work; now we balance the computer with being hands-on,” she says. “I need to touch the materials we have chosen – wood, leather, paint samples and so on – to make sure the mix is right. We adjust the final shape and proportions on computer to create a complete interior/exterior model that we can map the materials onto, and try different combinations and finishes. Once we decide, the final render is presented to the corporation.”
“We take the opportunity to experiment with the language of materials, and evolve the brand,” she says, noting the pigments developed for the opulent Levante One of One as having softer, richer tones: “Maserati is not loud, but subtle.” She avidly describes the textural Pelletessuta interiors, a woven Nappa leather made using loom technology developed by fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna. “Weaving with leather opens up so many possibilities. In some ways it’s like a performance material but it’s as comfortable and customisable as any woven fabric. It’s a perfect fit for Maserati, drawing from the craftsman legacy but innovating with it.”
While we often think of design as objects, design today is a process as much as a product, with designers often being called on to create systems for businesses, governments and the spaces we inhabit every day. Dr Rafael Gomez of QUT’s Design Lab says designers, “have to understand how people think, move and engage with each other to create liveable public spaces”.
He uses the example of a museum exhibition. “The designer needs to consider how people will be guided through a liminal space, how they will access the displays and be put in the right frame of mind to absorb the educational dimension.” This includes physical aspects – whether it’s expansive, cosy or evocative – and non-physical ones, such as public safety and how people will interact.
Considerations like these are essential to the layers of design that underpin a global city. Gomez points to digital services: “As well as public information and tourism apps, there’s the need to access Wi-Fi on transport links and to think about how Wi-Fi affects the way people move through cities.” This digital infrastructure must have adaptability built in, ready to deploy new technologies – like 5G phone networks – at speed.
Data analysing our movements also helps divine optimal locations for various precincts including successful social spaces. “People need inviting spaces to be included, to gather, eat, relax, socialise, and enjoy public events,” says Gomez. “ ‘Smart cities’ encourage interaction with art and green spaces, flipping the usual ‘keep off the grass’ approach. Public spaces are increasingly being designed to allow people to behave naturally and feel happier, rather than hemmed in.’
Experts predict that in coming years, more people will become their own designer as digital technologies become more sophisticated, yet easier to use. While there is currently a range of platforms offering customisable graphics for print or online use, Dr Scott Mayson of RMIT’s Centre for Additive Manufacturing believes the potential is far greater.
Additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, has already proven its worth in fields as diverse as prosthetic medicine and cultural heritage. Mayson sees the technology becoming ubiquitous in the future, albeit in a different way.
“It will be much more than printing pre-designed objects,” he says. “Digital tools, including very sophisticated forms of augmented reality, will allow people to design for themselves as interfaces grow more intuitive.”
Instead of having set options, they’ll use what Mayson terms “generative design”. “Rather than designing the overall form, you design the rules from which the design emerges,” he explains, describing the technique used to create RMIT’s breathtaking ceremonial mace. “The design uses algorithms based on patterns found in nature, that self-adjusts through millions of tiny interactions to create a harmonious, fluid form, like a flock of birds.” The final product was laser welded into thousands of layers of impossibly intricate titanium mesh.
Mayson feels this tech has the potential to make personalised, digitally crafted products available to the masses. “People will be able to adjust components of a design with almost infinite variation in shape, material, texture, pattern or patina, which will create value in a marketing sense but also give the user a real sense of attachment as the co-creator of a unique object.”
Dr Brandon Gien believes encouraging a knack for design among the next generation is essential to meeting future challenges, noting that the rapid changes in the workforce will only increase as technology becomes more integral and impacted by economic and social change. “Within 10 years, businesses will need entirely new approaches and solutions,” he says. “We need to be able to design effective and sustainable outcomes.”
But it’s not simply a case of building a better machine. Gien says that while the growing emphasis on science, technology and engineering in education is laudable, it doesn’t go far enough. “We don’t want to produce only ‘single-track’ thinkers,” he says. “We also need to develop creative faculties, the ability to take inspiration and think laterally – the domain of artists and designers.”
“In the future, we’re going to be facing business, social, and environmental challenges we can barely imagine today. It’s that creative spark, that ability to think outside the box, that will allow us to meet them.”
Published Il Tridente, Winter 2019