Where Great Design Comes From

Rhode Island School of Design
Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a link to an odd, wonderful design by a 24-year-old Swedish student.

It’s for a ceramic hanging holder for fresh fruit, and looks like something an elegant Hobbit might use. I discovered his work through Design Milk Daily Digest, which every day offers a tightly edited, well-chosen mix of international ideas about architecture, furniture and product design.

I love his playfulness and willingness to try something so unlikely.

What I like most is actually seeing the thinking and hard work behind the final product, which we so rarely witness. At a conference I attended a few years ago, one of the creators of design firm Pentagram, Michael Bierut, gave a talk, with slides, explaining how he arrived at a design for a children’s museum exhibit.

I am fascinated by process.

I don’t simply want to study or observe items in a shop or a museum or a show or at a conference. I’m eager to know where these ideas come from, what was most difficult or interesting about bringing them to life — not just to market.

When I heard John Maeda, who now heads the Rhode Island School of Design, speak in Manhattan, he minced no words when discussing why great design so rarely comes to mass markets — the suits who run the numbers, he said, love uniformity, predictability, projections and guidance to reassure investors. The designers, whose very job it is imagine the new and unthought-of, scare the hell out of the suits. Therefore — constant conflict!

I’m forever hungry for visual beauty and inspiration.

What design blogs or sites or publications inspire you?

Why Success Is Like an Iceberg

Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA
Image via Wikipedia

I went to the Museum of Modern Art today. I live near New York City and, for my mental health, try to take a hooky day once a week to surgically detach from the computer so my brain doesn’t just feel like a cow at the milking machine. I don’t really love MOMA: I’m not wild about much modern art, there are always way too many tourists, and people race through the galleries rushing toward…the bathroom? the store? So many people don’t even look at the art.

But a show of theatrical drawings and paintings left a powerful impression — as so many of them were for productions that, de facto, were not productions because they were never produced. No one, other than those who commissioned them, saw them. The cynic may say, “So what? The artists got paid.” But the point of art, or creation, is to share it with an audience, isn’t it?

And what amazing talent was devoted to the backdrops and sets for these unsung, unseen plays and musicals and ballets: Marc Chagall, Ben Shahn, Georg Grosz, Robert Delaunay. I wonder if they went home fed up and worn out from being hired to work on things no one ever got the chance to appreciate. Or, as working artists, if it paid the rent or bought some new clothes, it was just one more bit of welcome income.

It made me see these legendary artists in a whole new light. They, too, (as I have and many of my friends and colleagues have, in various media) worked hard on some projects that died a premature death, only now brought to light thanks to a curator’s decision to share them with a wider public.

I think success, whatever the medium, is like an iceberg. We focus all our attention, our praise or scorn, only on the visible, gleaming final 10 percent — never the invisible 90 percent, the efforts that didn’t work, the ideas that didn’t sell, lying beneath it, as much as part of the mass as that which we do know about. We only see a tiny bit of what anyone really produces. It may not be their best, or most innovative work, just what sold at that moment.

I recently attended a conference where graphic designer Michael Bierut explained the development of signage for a children’s museum. He projected photos of his sketchbooks so we could watch the progression and refinement of his ideas. It was so lovely, and so unusual, to share the intimacy of process. Writer Anne Hull, a much admired feature writer at The Washington Post, once shared early drafts of a story with some of us attending the Nieman writers’ conference, a brave move. It was helpful and inspiring to see how many self-flagellating drafts she put her copy through. By the time most of us read it, who knew?

I always want to peer behind the curtain. I used to write a lot about ballet, and have sat in on class for the Royal Danish Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. I’ve seen, and appreciated seeing, the underlying sweat and effort, not just the spotlit perfection of opening night. I want to see and hear about the ideas that didn’t make it, and why not. Failure is relative, and success is impossible without it. Our failures are crucial to our success(es), no matter how quickly they come. No one never fails.

But we often keep our failures hidden, discussion of them taboo.