An introspective look at the value behind design.
Sudanese pots by Kristina Drury
By Diane Ruengsorn
As my company Domestic Aesthetic is planning for 2010, we’re facing the ever-important question of what new products to introduce. As a product designer I should love this part of the process: to feel inspired by all the possibilities, the clean slate and new beginnings. Think of all the cool new stuff we can design! In reality, I somewhat dread this part, not because I don’t enjoy the creativity or the challenges of bringing a new product to market, but because I often feel my responsibility to sustainability outweighs the joys of being a designer. Obviously there are ways of being a responsible designer – material selection, manufacturing methods, locality – the basic toolkit of options we’re now integrating into daily practice. However for me, what we produce is just as important as how we produce it.
Anyone who has ever walked the floor of a tradeshow (specifically the NY International Gift Fair that is held twice a year and takes over the entire Javitz Center) will understand the dizzying amount of “stuff” that gets produced. Almost everything that can be bought or sold is on display here and I am in awe every time I walk through those doors at the endless row upon row of objects and wares that fills the enormous space. Aesthetics and judgment aside, most of it is utterly useless. This is when I question the role of product design the most. Is our job really to populate the world with more “stuff”?
Without a doubt, though, I am part of this machine and completely culpable. My business is predicated on making things so people can buy them. However, in many ways, it is painful for me to think of contributing to the mountains of “stuff” that already exists. So how do I rectify this dilemma? I honestly don’t know. In our current product line, I could easily point to something like our mahogany spice block (a salt cellar) that came into existence because we found out that a nearby manufacturer was routinely throwing out hundreds of pounds of off-cuts. The product was created in order to save wood from going into a landfill. But as we move up in scale and increase our volumes, products like this become less feasible.
One way forward is to create products that empower people. A great inspiration for that is Emily Pilloton’s new book Design Revolution.The book features one hundred products and systems that empower people, illustrating design’s power to solve problems and create change. One of my colleagues (and former design director for Domestic Aesthetic), Kristina Drury, is included in Design Revolution and she continuously strives to create such products. The book features her cooking pots for Sudanese refugees, but I was more moved and inspired by her thesis at Pratt which examined inhabitants of a battered women’s shelter. Many of these women lacked ways to improve their situation and it seemed like a cyclical system, going from troubled situation back to the women’s shelter. What Kristina did was introduce the tools and means for betterment: she created a simple product that required minimal sewing skills and gave sewing classes at the shelter. These women were then able to create and sell their goods, enabling them with a new skill and a potential way to change their lives. Perhaps by examining systems, as Kristina did, we can create products that are more meaningful and impactful. And this is when I feel honored to be a product designer: to be part of a small group of people who use their knowledge to solve problems and actually make things better.