Finish Without Function


The first time I went to an Art Center College of Design exhibition of their Product Design division, I was stunned. Man. What finishers! Hey, look at that vacuum cleaner looking thing! That could be sitting on the shelves at Target, I swear!

I had no real exposure to design, practically speaking. There was a short-lived subscription to I.D. as I contemplated a path through design-as-the-future-of-imagination for a dissertation chapter, but that was it. As I cross off a bunch of things on my little index card of goals and look at the ones for the next few years, I’ve been thinking hard about “design” and what I can learn from its history, tools, personalities and approach to making things.

What has raised my attention has been a few overhead words and conversations about a convergence amongst industrial design, research and the DIY communities that seems pretty intriguing. I overheard Bill Moggridge at last summer’s Microsoft Research symposium thing, calling for design students to do more than the surface — to make their prototypes “real” so that they can experience in a practical way what the artifact expresses, or does, or how it performs, so as to get real feedback from even a couple of people. He said this a few times while jurying some student design competition that Microsoft had put together. And then there was a recent visit to Intel’s People and Practices Research, where it was suggested that this is a general course of interest — to not just do paper prototypes, but to have an ability to rapidly design some far-flung idea to help explicate or investigate a research topic. Same goes for some other research and design labs I’ve come into contact with.


This sounds about right. Rapid design and prototyping methods have slipped below all the usual barriers to entry — cost, complexity, access to tools and communities, etc. It’s almost as if you can make a prototype as real as the real thing. As more digital kids come up in a culture of DIY design I might expect that Industrial Design, as taught at places like Art Center, will have to integrate more “function” below their incredibly finished surfaces to take the designs to the level of engineered reality. I was recently introduced to this distinction when a first-class model maker reminded me that what I do below the surface actually closes the gap between finished surface and functioning object. Much of what he sees are surfaces that need to account for the “engines” below the surface that make the thing actually work. Real nuisance things like mounting bosses, clearances for layers of material, tolerances for incursions that arise from incredibly thin surface-mount designs, etc. Mixing engineering with design was always something that I find myself doing — it’s hard to imagine just the surface.