Friday, December 31, 2010

A Year of Winners and Losers in Ingenuity

LONDON — It started so well. A friend had treated himself to a digital home management system, and he loved it. He could choose a favorite iTunes track to greet him whenever he walked in, and switch on the heating at exactly the right time to warm up the house before he returned from a trip. But then it went wrong.

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The Plastiki, a floating eco-design laboratory made from 13,000 recycled plastic water bottles, approaching Sydney in July.
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“Alice for the iPad,” Atomic Antelope’s interactive version of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”
By wrong, I mean so horribly wrong that one day, without warning, all of the services — heating, lighting, television, computer, sound system, alarm, the works — flashed on and off repeatedly. My friend tried everything he could think of to stop it, but nothing worked. Eventually he resorted to smashing the control panel with a hammer. Peace (of a sort) at last.

It may be a little extreme to see his digital horror story as a metaphor for what happened to design in 2010, but many of the ingredients were visible in other fields, too. (And I’m not just thinking of the hundreds of thousands of people who found themselves stranded at the Milan Furniture Fair after that unpronounceable Icelandic volcano erupted.) Dazzling displays of technological and human ingenuity. An enthusiastic response. Only for problems to arise that can’t be resolved, at least not yet. For better and worse, those qualities appeared again and again in design last year.

Take digital technology. Microsoft’s new Kinect games system introduced us to what techies call “human interaction technology,” which is controlled by sensors and voice recognition software. It looked so futuristic when Tom Cruise used it in the 2002 sci-fi movie “Minority Report,” but will soon seem very ordinary. Kinect dispenses with controllers and enables players to use their voices or gestures to make a game start, stop, speed up, slow down, or whatever.

Though it is trumped as product of the year by (no prizes for guessing) Apple’s iPad tablet computer. Millions of iPads have been sold since it went on sale in April, and thousands of applications (alias “apps”) have been designed for it. Some of those apps are stunningly imaginative, like “Alice for the iPad,” Atomic Antelope’s interactive version of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and Wired magazine’s iPad edition, with its smart use of data visualization, another experimental area of design, which went mainstream in 2010.

The iPad offered a golden opportunity for ye olde print media, like books, newspapers and magazines to be reinvented for a seductive new medium. Yet so far most of the oldies have blundered by producing woefully uninspired replicas of the printed originals.

And, despite all of the talent and money invested in digital innovation, designers and programmers have yet to devise a solution to the escalating problem of how to control what Jaron Lanier described in his book “You Are Not a Gadget” as the anarchic “mash-up” of Facebook, Twitter and other forms of interactive Web 2.0 technology.

Another increasingly exciting and important, but often muddled area of design is sustainability. The design adventure of 2010 was the intrepid 11,000 mile, or 17,600 kilometer, voyage across the Pacific of The Plastiki, a floating eco-design laboratory made from 13,000 recycled plastic water bottles, to raise awareness of plastic waste in the oceans. Back on terra firma, the flood of pre-orders for Nissan’s new electric car, the Leaf, which went on sale in Japan and part of the United States this month, demonstrated the growing public interest in energy-efficient products.

Yet there is still no consensus on what sustainable design means — or should mean — among designers and the companies that commission them, let alone the rest of us. Nor is there a reliable, user-friendly way for consumers to assess the environmental and ethical impact of most of the stuff they buy. Until these problems are resolved, sustainable design will never fulfill its true potential.

The same tensions are emerging in the equally dynamic field of inclusive design. Social design flourished in 2010 by applying design principles to serious issues like aging, unemployment and homelessness, but is now imperiled in many countries by cuts in public spending. Participle, the British social design group, which has become a front-runner in the field, is continuing to develop its existing initiatives in aging and social cohesion, but is finding it increasingly difficult to raise funding to prototype new concepts.

Similarly, there was lots of inspiring work in humanitarian design. The Project H team decamped to the depressed rural area of Bertie County, North Carolina, to run an experimental design course in a local high school. Sustainable Health Enterprises expanded the SHE 28 project of helping to lessen problems caused by menstruation for women in developing countries, while encouraging them to increase their income by setting up new businesses.

But a ferocious feud erupted over a blog post by the American design commentator Bruce Nussbaum titled: “Is humanitarian design the new imperialism?” It isn’t, at least not if it is intelligently conceived and executed in collaboration with the people it is intended to benefit, rather than being foisted upon them. Yet Mr. Nussbaum ignited a spirited debate by pointing out that not all humanitarian design projects observe those principles, and identifying some of the pitfalls for designers of entering the political minefield of economic development.

Among other design highlights of 2010, the unofficial prize for “best book design” goes to Irma Boom for proving that big isn’t necessarily best with her 704-page “baby” book “Boom.” While Rockstar Games wins best game design for the haunting realistic Western game Red Dead Redemption.

Best design exhibition was Alessandro Mendini’s gloriously idiosyncratic “Quali Cose Siamo” (“The Things We Are”) at La Triennale Design Museum in Milan. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, bagged best design acquisition by adding the “@” symbol to its collection. Best big design indulgence goes to Marc Newson’s gorgeous $1.5 million speedboat; and the little indulgence gong to the Bouroullec brothers’ subtly smart Ovale dishes.

As for the design debacle of 2010, Gap bags the (booby) prize for wussily scrapping its new corporate logo after a week of complaints from customers. Happy New Year.

This article is by By ALICE RAWSTHORN from the NY Times

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