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Forays into the physical with thoughts on industrial design from frog's product design team.

Beyond the Rational

A few weekends ago, during Oakland’s Art Murmur, my friend and I swung by a rather small gallery to check out the work on display. It was near closing time, and we were obviously late to the party. Aside from the gallery owner, some fancy cheese, broken up crackers, half-empty bottles of cheap wine and the two nouveau-hipsteresque gentlemen in all black, there was nobody else in there. The pieces were hung in the back half of the space and resembled some sort of indigenous dream catchers. At first glance I thought that they might have been remnants of an archeological dig, rather than contemporary art created just few months prior—there was simply a certain air of primitive authenticity to them.

In most cases I would walk in, check out the art, and leave. But, because my friend has an incredible and innate ability to effortlessly draw people in, within a few short minutes we were deep in conversation with the artist as if we had known each other for ages. The artist shared with us her intent, her desire to detach from the academic formality of making art and get back to her roots, back to when she was a child making things out of stuff she found in the backyards of Colorado. She talked about the energies each piece of found wood had and the reasoning behind why she chose a certain crystal or rock over another for each piece, including what their significance and “power” was. All of a sudden I found myself engulfed in a conversation about planetary alignment, the forces of Jupiter, rose quartz crystals, chakras and I’m sure at some point intergalactic meditation. I must be honest, at that moment all I could think of was: "What a bunch of gobbledygook!"

After a few minutes, I realized, “Holy crap, this is probably what designers sound like to the business world!” I hit the reset button, turned off my discomfort, doubt and skepticism and simply listened. It turned out to be one of the most enriching, inspiring and memorable conversations I have had in a long time, about subjects I literally knew nothing about.

More importantly, it made me think about how a designers’ intent and intuition is (mis)interpreted by the other half of the design world simply due to the cultural language barriers that exist between the two worlds. Rarely do we talk numbers or what revenue our creations might generate in the open market—we assume, dare I say know, that if we are allowed to do our job right, then the product will succeed in the marketplace and the fruits of our labor will grow like wildflowers. Not unlike the artists, designers tend to gravitate toward the empathetic aspects of a conversation. For example, if a conversation is about a specific project, we tend to discuss materials, aesthetics, colors, proportions, the emotional and visceral impact to the consumer, the delicate relationship an object will have with the market, what personality it will embody, how it will speak to the consumer, and so forth. Note all the personification that goes into describing an inanimate object, no wonder we call them our babies—they engage, speak, relate, embody, help, assist, entertain. Even back when I was in Detroit designing cars, we often thought of automobiles as costumes--an embodiment of one’s true personality exposed to the world. The driver is unseen, but the car is, and henceforth the driver becomes the car. How rational is that? It’s not. Not in the very least. And so I wonder, "Can progress be made if every now and then designers and non-designers reset their natural tendencies, and took the brave step to immerse themselves in an unfamiliar world, void of judgment, cynicism or criticism?"

To many, this may all sound like a big tall glass of Nor-Cal-hippie-spirulina-drivel, but indulge me for a moment as I extend a challenge to designers and non-designers alike:

Fearlessly explore the unknown and foreign. Delve into areas you would have otherwise dismissed. The results may surprise you. You may open up doors that unlock hidden potential and passageways that deliver insights you could have never uncovered in your current state of comfort. Laugh at conventional wisdom in an effort to break down any, and all, preconceived notions about “the others" around you. Only after pushing yourself and stretching the boundaries of your own reality, can you truly create design solutions for the real world.