Strategies & Insights

Opposing Forces for Compelling Design

Posted: June 7, 2011 by
Jan von Borstel

Is design a craft or is it art? More importantly, does it matter? On the one hand, design is such an everyday thing that we hardly even notice it anymore. On the other hand, design sees itself as being such an exclusive topic that it refers to itself more and more frequently as art. Both of these opposing views are right, and often great design arises from recognizing—even celebrating—the differences.

Form vs. function
Great design is intrinsically linked with functionality. For me, beauty is inherent in any product that functions perfectly. I also believe that a cornerstone principle of modernism—form follows function—is still absolutely valid.
Today, however, the definition of function is much broader and more comprehensive. To make today’s products and packages function well, their actual function needs to encompass all aspects of an increasingly complex product development process. Important aspects include market research, data analysis, conceptual development, the selection of materials, efficient manufacturing, and the design presentation. Even the anticipation and planning of future line extensions is included in the definition of the original function of the product and package.

Materials vs. function
As a typical German designer, I value precision and clarity. However, in design, it always comes down to the inseparable interplay of materials and functions. These two forces form a symbiotic relationship and define each other. The material gives the product its soul, and vice versa. Good design makes the intrinsic qualities of the material tangible, and the material defines the exact nature of the object’s function. Furthermore, the tactile sensation of a material and its surface should never be underestimated as a powerful design element.
There are two extremes in design today. On one side, there’s the traditional and archetypal. On the other side is a technologically driven, high-tech, somewhat bionic, approach. It’s true that elaborate and curvy shapes are much easier to manufacture nowadays. However, ask yourself: Just because I can make a form, do I really need to design it that way?
Archetypal forms that have stood the test of time, on the other hand, are based on fundamental geometric principles—circles, squares, and proportions. Over the centuries, in both art and design, people have come to accept these forms. It’s for this reason that that archetypal forms can feel more human than much of what we see today labeled as modern organic design or organic architecture.
As opposed to modern, smooth artificial materials, archetypal materials have sensual characteristics, and the thickness and weight of a material are important. Even an object’s tone, or the sound it makes when used or put down on a table, can be a sensual experience. Among archetypal materials, contrasts can be very effective at distinguishing a brand personality. Taking hard, archetypal materials such as granite or cast iron and combining them with ephemeral materials like felt or leather creates a dramatic effect. Other pleasing contrasts include combining rough ones with smooth ones or “cold” materials with “warm” ones.

Past vs. future
The future will undoubtedly bring renewed appreciation for values of the past, and archetypal materials will experience a resurgence. The luxury segment is already leading the way by embracing traditional craftsmanship and handmade packaging. I believe that this indicates a shift away from synthetic, smooth, thin plastic surfaces and toward natural, handmade, solid materials.
The signs of age can even be valuable in design, as it’s not always a negative to see how an object made from more natural materials has aged. These signs can be like traces of the history of an object. Archetypal materials develop patinas naturally, as opposed to modern materials with their over-polished, sterile surfaces. Plastics don’t age; they just get old.
Consumers may begin to realize this and turn their backs on throwaway products and packages, realize how much longer real materials last, learn how valuable time-tested manufacturing is, and appreciate true quality again. A well-designed and well-crafted cast iron bowl can last over 3,000 years if you only rub it with a little linseed oil every now and then.

Jan von Borstel is an artist, designer, and principal of the janvonborstel-studios ( design agency in Hamburg, Germany.