Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Dark Side of Design

Design is everything.
I should know.
I went to Finland for a conference on design as a tool for solving large scale social problems.
I went to New Zealand for a conference called Better By Design.
I went to Atlanta for a conference on design. Just design.
So I'm a huge fan of design, design thinking, design as the new language of innovation, design as a methodology, design as a verb, design as a noun.
But I'm also painfully aware of the dark side of design.
That's when we get design that is so aware of itself that it's not about anything else except the thin veneer of design that can cover anything, like, well, like a Michael Graves building. Which is arch-design, so self-conscious it leaves room for little else.
That's what's on display at SFMOMA at a highly touted exhibit curated (the verb of the year) by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, one of the hot architectural firms of the day. The exhibit is called "How Wine Became Modern: Design+Wine, 1976 to Now."
It has a series of beautifully, um, designed glass upscale Petri dishes from wineries around the world with a small sample of earth--terroir--from that vineyard. A bottle of wine lay beneath each Petri dish. The lighting was gorgeous.
In the next room was a wall of wine bottles, also beautifully, um, designed, organized by brand name: names that were sinful, names that were heavenly, names of animals, names of family members, weather-related names. You get the idea.
There was a grape vine, severed in the middle, suspended in the air with the root structure and vine structure balanced with great grace.
There was a display of a piece of technology developed with NASA to track the health of vineyards.
There were beautiful wine glasses in a case and a handful of elaborate glass decanters in a window.
The next room had a wall with a map of a couple dozen wineries and one photo each of buildings designed by brand-name architects as their showroom/visitor centers.
There were four models, two of which, a Gehry building and a Graves layout, were grotesque.
There were a series of commissioned photos of people visiting wineries that seemed to be making fun of people visiting wineries.
There was a movie of a video artist walking through the streets of Bordeaux wearing a white suit, while carrying a goblet of red wine, filming himself trying not to spill the wine.
There was a long glass case with a few random wine related objects and a chance to smell a handful of decanters with liquids that demonstrated some of the current vocabulary of wine-smelling. there was a video display of snippets of wine-drinking scenes from movies and a bank of small video screens with wine-related TV reports.
It was all done with a great sense of design. Handsome. Clean. Modern. Multi-media. Interactive.
It was also a vast amount of space given by SFMOMA to the designers with the hope, the expectation, that visitors might actually learn How Wine Became Modern. How design and wine have interacted to create experiences for people, how design and wine have developed into a massive, fascinating global industry with clearly delineated design specs for the making and marketing of wine around the world. There are a lot of fun and interesting questions that you could think of to address in trying to explain how wine became modern, including how far it had to come, what the ingredients are that made wine into such an elaborate social expression, who the people are who contributed to the transformation of wine, and much much more.
But what we got was a triumph of design over substance, which is also the dark side of design. Design is best when it's a tool for something significant, when it's a means to an end, and not an end in itself, when it's used purposefully and powerfully to make a point, to teach, to solve a problem, to express a point of view, to demonstrate a way of thinking or a way of living.
When design becomes about itself, when it is self-referential to the point of caricature, then design is so thin, it's impossible not to see through it.
And that's not even modern--it's post-modern--and the dark side of design.

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