How design works: the bigger picture

I once visited a small but beautiful exhibition in Stockholm, about Finnish furniture design. It also showed a lot about the life and work of the great Eero Saarinen. You can find interesting stories, designs and videos about his oeuvre online. There is no doubt that he was a brilliant architect and furniture designer during his short professional life. In this exhibition you could see, touch and feel some of his most famous furniture designs. You could relax in the original tulip chair. Or dream away in the comfortable globe chair designed by the other Eero (Aarnio). Oh yeah.

I was very struck by a quote (Eliel Saarinen) on the wall of the gallery:

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

This advice is so crucial in our (over)designed contemporary society. It’s easier than ever to create products and services to a fast schedule, in a limited quantity, produced locally, for a local market. Interesting times! But this also means we have a lot of products and services that aren’t so carefully designed, and, very often, don’t consider the environment in which they are operating or being used.

This can be a real problem, because it affects the performance of the design, the behaviour of the user and the design’s global reception. A good design can be seen as a bad design just because of the wider environment in which it’s used. This is a plea for thorough observation of the user in all his or her domains, so you are fully aware of the habits, the favourites, the rituals, the environment … of your potential group of users.

The_Bigger_Picture_2 (2)_LowresWhen we focus a design job purely on product-service specifications, we risk losing vital information about the time, place and situation in which it will be used, and the environment and collaboration with all those other designed products and services – that’s the bigger picture. (Industrial) designers are not creating lone islands of well-functioning beauty.

Universal design is an unachievable dream. However globally interconnected we are, it doesn’t follow that it’s easy to reach and design for each and every one of us.

On the contrary, it only takes a few clicks to reveal all the big and small differences between people. Design for a large (well-researched) group of people is possible, of course. But for this we must go further down the interesting road of user-centred design.

That will always lead to design work that satisfies its consumers.