Designing against chaos

Promethea

I had the good fortune of stumbling across an almost one-hour long talk given by Oliver Reichenstein of iA - Information Architects. The talk was titled, Information - Entropy and in it he talked about his principles of good design and how right now the modern world of technology is possibly hurtling our civilisation down a path that of ever accelerating chaos and entropy.

Even though entropy is a fundamental law of the universe according to the second law of thermodynamics and seems to be inevitable even when dealing with metaphorical things like human existence and so on, he mentioned that he believed that life itself can and does act as a sort of counter to this natural phenomenon.

Conscious action by natural occurences and sentient beings can help to stem the universal entropic tide. If we lose sight of this, we will end up in more trouble than we may be able to get ourselves out of.

His talk focused on software design since that is what his company does, but his principles cut across all design disciplines in my opinion.

I will list the points he raised in his talk below and while they are all interconnected, he broke them down into the following principles:

  • Slow down - take time to think about what you are doing and how you are doing it.
  • Negativity - listen to feedback and use it as a catalyst for self-analysis and improvement, even if you do not agree with the criticism.
  • Repetition - do not be tempted to create "new" things for the sake of being unique. Iterate on old concepts and look for what else can be derived from them.
  • Intimacy - develop a relationship with your users. Do not be too eager to share everything about your processes and ideas with the world. Being able to choose who and when you reveal certain things to makes the ideas more precious and builds stronger relationships between the designer and the end-user.
  • Details - paying attention to the details allows for an even greater relationship between the creator and the consumer as spending time to refine details allows for thoughtful users to get even more enjoyment when they notice them.

Slow Down

Leather & steel chair designed by Maurizio Altieri as part of the & HE WENT TO THE SEA IN HIS CARRIAGE & HORSES EXHIBITION in the SOME/THINGS Secret Gallery. Photography by Elise Toïde for SOME/THINGS magazine

Whether it is a client brief, or a fashion collection, or coming up with the solution to a problem in one's life, we all need to take time out to not only develop a solution, but also to actually observe the problem itself. Slowing down also allows us to look critically and creatively at the tools at our disposal, our relationships with the people that will be affected by our designs and our own minds at the time we are working.

In today's accelerated world, it feels like less and less time is given to people to design. The fashion season has expanded from two collections a year to four of them, pushed even faster and faster by pressure from the fast fashion industries and the desire for newness that consumers and the industry demands.

When money is the motivating factor, good design suffers as more and more demands are made on its ability to deliver creative solutions to abstract and material problems.

In Nigeria where we are lucky enough to still be in a position where we can set a sustainable pace, I think it is important we do so before globalisation fully embraces us.

Negativity

Photography by Willy Vanderperre for Raf Simons.

We lack a culture of both critique and listening to criticism in Nigeria. It makes us become not only complacent in our various fields, but also ignorant and even disdainful of the needs of the people we are making these things for. Even if a critique is fundamentally uninformed or delivered in a hostile fashion, we should still use the opportunity to inhabit someone else's shoes and see our designs from the outside. We might never get to see things from that particular point of view, but it will still give us a new perspective on the work we are doing.

This process is extremely fundamental to getting better and iterating successfully on our output and processes.

Good design also engenders empathy between the designer and their user and we could definitely use more of that in the world.

Repetition

Outfits are laid out flat on the floor before a runway show for Yohji Yamamoto. Photography by Donata Wenders.

In the West generally, there is a stigma against copying and repetition. The capitalist dogma that has given them such economic growth also feeds on the idea of presenting the false proposition that new is fundamentally better than old. This is how they convince consumers to crave new things and look for unique features, even if they are largely superfluous ones.

This attitude is not only unsustainable, but it also puts undue pressure on designers to fabricate features and design elements that have no real value beyond the surface one of making people desire their product.

To copy or repeat a design allows us to observe it better, improve on things that we may have missed before and develop a dialogue with our customers, reassuring them with the familiarity of the old, while improving their experience by further iterating on the designs.

He gave a great example of how little children can watch the same cartoon endlessly and he felt it was because they always see something new with each viewing. The same holds true for design. Even if the design has not changed by the time you come to it again, you might have, and those new eyes will bring with them new insight.

This sort of copying is different from copying without any research or analysis of the original design. In this case, all that one usually ends up with is a poor photocopy that lacks both an intrinsic design goal and extrinsic design elements to aid in the achievement of said goal.

Intimacy

Print advert for Helmut Lang Perfume

The best designers can create a relationship between their designs and their end-users. This relationship is founded on trust in the quality and suitability of the product to achieve desired aims and more importantly, a dialogue between the designer and the customer that is communicated via elements in the design that can only be discovered by using the product.

Not revealing these details to the world at large and leaving them for users to discover can help to create a special feeling between those users that discover them and the product they are using. It makes them feel that these details were put in for them to discover.

Details

God lives in the details and this point ties in very neatly with all the ones mentioned above. One needs time to iron out details and give them an extra coat of loving attention, not to mention the fact that the more details are repeated and little variations made on their execution, the more special people that have noticed them feel and the more they cherish your product since they now see that you take that much time and care over such small details. For example, a specific type of horn used for buttons on a jacket may not be noticed by the majority of customers, but those that do notice them will appreciate their inclusion and treaure them, enjoying the cataloguing of differences between collections or iterations of the same jacket.


All the principles above if followed diligently will make for intelligent, respectful design that not only empowers the designer, it rewards the diligent customer and aids in helping us as a civilisation take the time to study our progression and ensure that we do not embark on grand moves within our society that may not be sustainable for all of us in the future.

The difference between the simplest Yohji Yamamoto jacket and one from most fast fashion houses lies in more than just the cost of the materials to make them and the name on the label. It lies in the amount of time and care that is taken in something as mundane as the construction of the shoulder seam, the choice of buttons and the time taken to create the fabric.

The latter is a commodity, and with enough time, can form an industry that commoditises its customers as well. Reducing them to nothing more than mobile wallets waiting for the next big thing.

The former is a designed object and can result in dialogue, serving as a focal point of discussion between user and designer and may end up in better products and a better world for all of us.

Yegwa Ukpo

Yegwa Ukpo

Lagos, Nigeria