Monday, May 12, 2008

Design and the Elastic Mind

As advertised in yesterday’s blog, today Ben and I visited the Museum of Modern Art’s show, Design and the Elastic Mind. Any day away from Local Motors and the team is a calculated opportunity cost analysis and this one paid out even better than expected.

One of the underlying assumptions of the show is that designers are the connection – or rather that they provide the connection – between the people of the world and the technology that surrounds them. The show also states that some people are more elastic than others when it comes to interfacing with the pace of technology and that designers are the agents that ease this interface.

The senior curator, Paola Antonelli, specifically selected work for the show that was the design of tomorrow and NOT that of the distant future.

In all, the show was of a manageable size of 6 rooms but with an intense amount of projects stuffed in each. As I reflect on what I got out of the experience, here are the most obvious themes:

1) That biomimicry in design(i.e. the inspiration of nature as the model for the design of our built environment) is a foregone conclusion. Though I like this concept a great deal, and have worked hard in a prior job to invest in such concepts, I also recognize some of the limited applications that biomimicry can have. Style or fashion seems often to run counter to this notion, as they lead our taste on a fast-paced game of chase around the built environment. Often where we land is nothing like what nature intends… So the jury for me is still out on the depth of impact from biomimicry.

(Callalily and Lily Impeller,, Photo: Nucci Studio)

2) Heavy emphasis in rapid prototyping (RP). With a distinct nod to plastic and starch-based prototypes, the show celebrated the new-found ability to build whatever you can draw. In fact, it even highlighted a new drawing technique of free-hand design in 3D space from a Swedish team, Front…very cool. Though RP techniques are revolutionary, I was surprised that there was not more emphasis on Direct Digital Manufacturing (i.e. the use of RP technology to make production parts)…This to me is one of the most profound impacts of the technology. No longer “design to prototype” alone but rather “design to finished product” in a rapid process.

3) Very VERY cool usage of mobile (bicycle or truck-toted) metropolitan laser graffiti. Perhaps the biggest wildcard, and the most engaging display was the shocking use of laser light to project metropolitan-size graffiti on the sides of city-scapes. With the stroke of a laser pointer, a single bicycle riding deviant could paint the side of a 15 story building from blocks away with “personal expression”. Though I am sure this self-expression would usher in new laws regarding temporary laser defacement, the impact of such a cool design was unmistakeable.

4) And finally, the notion that celebrates “Design as the highest form of human expression”. Antonelli is outspoken and unapologetic about this notion. She clearly shows in her words and in this show that Design is a magical synthesis of often-competing disciplines. To her, Design is the highest form of human expression because it is a delicate negotiation of art, economics, science, engineering, and beauty all to create a design that people want and will use. I have to say that I agree. The exercise of building a car company and a prototype alone has convinced me of this sound wisdom.

So the show is a success and our travel through it brought much to consider. As a final note, what seemed to be missing was the collaborative element of design suffused with direct and immediate feedback from the users of the world. Such an exploration of community-informed design was another tenet of the show and yet it appeared to be largely missing...that is, it was “missing” until it hit me over the head. Antonelli’s intention must have been to use a directive and choosy hand to expose us – the viewers and future consumers of this design – to the design of tomorrow that she thinks merits attention. In so doing, she hopes that we will reflect on all that we have seen and then react to those designs to shape, improve, and eventually to use them as our own. We were suddenly part of the community, and we didn’t even know it ☺ Now it is up to us to put this inspiration to work.

Bravo Design.