When good may not be bad but still ugly

Toothpicks and Logos
January 10, 2003

John Heskett, professor of design at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, is perturbed that his chosen academic discipline is not taken sufficiently seriously. (Who isn't?) Design, he groans, is widely thought to have "a lightweight, decorative role, of little consequence". This is a misapprehension he desperately wants to correct.

In Toothpicks and Logos: Design in Everyday Life , he argues that design "affects everyone in every aspect of every detail of what they do throughout each day" - and the book's principal strength is that it shows how design contributes to many more aspects of human existence than is commonly recognised. Toothpicks and Logos demonstrates the importance of design in media and communications, in people's home and working environments, in formulating procedures and systems and, naturally, in the creation and definition of identities. Heskett provides countless excellent examples of how good design - by which he means professional, thoughtful design - can make all those phenomena function more effectively.

Unfortunately, being obsessed with functionality, he plays down the importance of aesthetics to such an extent that the look of things hardly seems to matter to him. Consider this definition: "Design, stripped to its essence, can be defined as the human capacity to shape and make our environment in ways without precedent in nature, to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives." No mention of pleasing the eye; no mention of aesthetics at all.

But in shunning aesthetics, Heskett sidesteps some of the most fundamental problems in design. If something functions well, does it matter if it is hideous? If it is what most of the public want, does it matter if it looks vile? Don't appearances matter at all? Of course all discussions of aesthetics involve awkward questions of taste and subjectivity - but this does not mean the role of aesthetics in design can simply be ignored. Visit any cheap and cheerful furniture store and you will find armchairs and settees that are superbly comfortable, are made of hard-wearing easy-to-clean materials, function perfectly and sell like hot cakes - but are an affront to the eye. Likewise, in posh furniture stores, you will find visually delightful chairs that are agonisingly uncomfortable. Heskett has no problem denouncing the latter. But what about the former?

Moreover, most of his arguments push at open doors. Admittedly, design is a word often used sloppily, but there can be few people who do not understand that there is more to design than mere decoration. When people say something is "badly designed", whether it be a door that does not open when pushed, or anything from a corkscrew to a car or a computer, they almost always mean that it does not function as it should. Surely everybody knows by now that good design does not simply mean "it looks nice"? And by using the word design in so all embracing a way, Heskett makes it almost tautologous to say that design infiltrates every aspect of our lives. In this sense, prehistoric man "designed" the coup de poing (though he presumably had no idea how sophisticated he was being).

Once you say every human artefact is designed, and you ignore aesthetics, the concept of design loses any useful meaning. Some human artefacts function better than others. Some look better than others. The problem for designers, in all spheres, is to create things that work well and look great. Things that look great but do not work well are lousy designs. But then so are things that work well and look gross. Aesthetics matter and it is discombobulating to find a book by a professor of design who appears not to think so.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, Royal Institution.

Toothpicks and Logos: Design in Everyday Life

Author - John Heskett
ISBN - 0 19 280321 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £11.99
Pages - 224

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