Design Direct: Roger Ball's New Book


Roger Ball sent me a copy of his new book, Design Direct, the other day. I'd been aware of Roger's work on the Size China project, and also through my friend Lorraine Justice the work that Hong Kong Polytechnic students were doing in the area of designing products, having them manufactured, and selling them. 

Roger's book starts with a brief history of mass production and the traditional ways designers have worked with manufacturers, and then outlines the current technologies - from digital design and manufacturing to social-media-based marketing and sales channels - that designers can leverage to design, manufacture, and sell products to customers. This isn't news to us (we've watched Scott Wilson's TikTok and LunaTik Kickstarter project, and others like it, with interest), but Roger's book is a start-to-finish, thorough examination of the background, issues, and possibilities of this space for designers.

Some of the material will be known to designers, but not necessarily to design students, which makes me think that this will be a very popular book for beginners in our field.

Other chapters, like Chapter Two: "Why are there no designers who are CEOs?" would interest all of us (I should quickly add that Ball qualifies this provocative question - of course there are examples of designer-led companies - but they are few, and his discussion of why this is is valuable). 

Currently, a team of students in my research course are taking on the topic of the DIY / Maker culture and the potential opportunities there for designers, and this book seems like it will be a good resource for them. 

It looks like others think so as well. Don't know what Roger's initial run was, but currently the paperback edition is sold out on Amazon. The Kindle edition is not, however (though there don't seem to be any illustrations in the Kindle edition - what a mistake!! Kindle readers can see some examples here).

I'd be interested in what you all think.

Update: The illustrations are included - at "location 2384." But I still ask Kindle - Why not put links in the text where Roger references the plates? Sheesh.

Another update: Whereas Amazon says they're sold out of the print version, it looks like you can buy a copy directly from here.


Eva Zeisel, 11/13/1906 - 12/30/2011

Eva Zeisel, the last of the 20th Century masters, passed away peacefully today. She arose, showered and dressed, sat in her chair, and soon afterward left us, I would like to think, to pursue her "playful search for beauty" in the great beyond.

At Eva's 90th birthday, James Fulton, her student (Pratt 1951) and a major figure himself in industrial design, said that Eva "moved through all the modern movements yet was moved by none of them." She defied convention. During the sterile and, as Eva said, "anorexic" years when Modernist dogma commanded us to "reduce, reduce, reduce" designs to their simplest Euclidean form, she reveled in curves, color, and, yes, ornament. She said to me once that young designers will ornament their bodies with piercings or tattoos, yet it would be forbidden for them to add those ornaments to their designs. "The vase with the flower on it will never get the award. The student who presents in in class will get an F."  

She mentored generations of designers, from her students at Pratt from 1939 to 1954, to young designers in the present, teaching us all that the playful search for beauty is in itself a noble goal. 

She used the word "pretty."  

When she leaned toward me in one of our conversations and said, "We are makers of pretty things," I recoiled as if struck. I come from the generation of industrial designers educated in the 80s, who faced some hard years in the trenches, defending our expertise to corporate types who hadn't a clue about what it was that we actually did. We never referred to our work as "making pretty things." In our client pitches, we loaded - and still load - our language with B-School grenades like "adding value" and "impacting the bottom line," endeavoring to break through the culture barrier in the corporate conference room. We fought an uphill battle - intuitives in a world that worshiped the quantifiable. 

She rejected formulaic solutions. 

In the 50s and 60s, the Museum of Modern Art endeavored to teach Americans what "good design" was. Zeisel was on one of their expert panels and refused to answer the question, "What is Good Design?" She refused to ordinate one design as "good-er" than another. 

This does not mean that she settled for less than perfect. Comparing her work to others in her millieu, she made most look like slouches. Her pieces show a sure-footedness of line that knows exactly how a curve will start, where it will go, and how it will end.  

If you are lucky enough to see one of her designs in the flesh, and if you are even luckier to be able to put your hands on it, there is a visceral jolt at the touch, the feel of it. Just the other day I received in the mail one of her Town and Country casseroles. I had never held one. As I laid my hand on the handle, the sensation of that shape in my palm was electrifying. Her designs reward the hand. 

She was a master of masters.  

She created designs that were lauded by the design cognoscenti and also loved by ordinary people. She traveled the world and said that encountering her designs on kitchen tables from Kansas to Krakow was like seeing "so many well-behaved grandchildren."


These days, we talk alot about expressing emotion with our designs. One of the most important lessons I learned from Eva was that to her, design was not driven by a self-serving need to express herself; it was an act of generosity, giving a gift. She spoke of "making soul contact" with her public, in very much as the same way as Charles Eames' "guest-host relationship," where the designer is the gracious host.

My teachers were Modernists. Their teachers were Modernists. Their teachers teachers were Modernists. Under the 70-year thrall of Rationalism, the knowledge of how to sculpt curvilinear form, not to mention how to use color and apply ornament, was lost to us. As we strive to break the code today, Eva has much to teach us.

She was one of the keepers of the lost art. May she rest in peace.

William L. Hamilton's New York Times obit was published December 30, 2011, on page B7.


The Architect and the Painter

Went to see the new documentary about the Eameses this morning and was very glad to have caught it. The story of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames is fascinating and complex. Over the years I've been learning it, a piece at a time. This latest film is, on its surface, about the partnership between Charles and Ray, but it paints as complete a picture as I've yet seen about the office and the work that took place there.
In my History of ID course at Art Center I take at least one evening, if not two, covering the office, because knowing how this work took place is an essential component to any designer's education. The Eames Office was and still is the ultimate model of a life spent in service to the glorious act of design.
At the screening I was lucky enough to run into Deborah Sussman and Paul Prejza and we had a lovely chat about the film. Deborah told me about an upcoming AIGA event at the A+D Museum across from LACMA, where she and the designer Andrew Byrom will talk about her work and their collaboration on the current exhibition at the A+D, Eames Words.

The event will be Thursday, December 8th, 6:30 - 8:30 and sounds promising. I have not seen the exhibit yet, and so I plan to go Thursday, if not sooner (I'm taking a group of students to see California Design at LACMA this Tuesday, so I might take the opportunity to visit the A+D then).
I can never get enough of this story. The Eames Office taught us how it is done, and there is always more of this lesson to learn. I don't know how long this film will be showing - if I were you, I'd catch it while you can.


My brother Bill and I went to the screening of Gary Hustwit's new documentary, Urbanized, last night. This is the third in his series on design that includes Helvetica and Objectified. Like Objectified, I suspect that for designers in the discipline, in this case architects and urban designers, there was no new knowledge here, but we found it fascinating. I had known about a number of the people and events included in the documentary, but some parts were new to me. 

Especially interesting was the ongoing history of urban development and the implications of development with and without the participation of the residents. The day Hustwit's team arrived in Stuttgart they got caught up in the violent police action against protestors of the Stuttgart 21 project.

In Hustwit's interviews, project developers maintained that the public was consulted, but the vehemence of the protest belies that. In fact, the long-dominant political party that backed the project was ousted soon afterward, replaced by the Green Party - a first. In the meantime, the work on the project continues.

This of course reminds us of New Yorkers' futile protests to stop the Cross-Bronx expressway in the late 40s. it took the destruction of Penn Station in 1963 to enlist enough protest to put a stop to Robert Moses' next project - an expressway across Greenwich Village. Jane Jacobs wrote her book, and a new age of architectural preservation and Urbanism was born.

One of my favorite segments was on artist & designer Candy Chang's "I Wish This Was" project. She put stickers on vacant storefronts in her home town, New Orleans, and invited people to write on them.

My brother commented that the theater had a very good projector, something we find important here in LA, and also complemented the cinematographer, Luke Geissbühler, and his exquisite and careful framing of the shots.

Both of us liked the segment on former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa. I was familiar with him from the PBS series E2, but enjoyed seeing him again as he toured the city on his bicycle, pointing out the sustainable and civic-minded improvements he made to the city. He developed a number of projects, including parks, libraries, and one of the most extensive bike path networks in the world.  Peñalosa is an extremely engaging critic of our modern urban landscape, questioning the status quo and poking a finger in the eye of the establishment where he sees the need, as in his comparison of the estates overlooking Long Island Sound with corrupt pre-revolution French aristocracy. He is not afraid to go up against incumbent power, as he did with the TransMilenio, a rapid transit system that replaced a chaotic system of privately-run and competing busses.

He was almost impeached for eliminating parking in Bogotá, and he considers himself a "bad politician," because he keeps losing elections. Though he lost his bid for Mayor again in 2007, Hustwit says he's planning another run. We're wondering if we'd be allowed to vote.


A Dangerous Idea

This past Friday I attended Bolt | Peters' User Research Friday, and there were a couple of presentations I found interesting. For example, frogdesign's Associate Strategy Director Ben McAllister's talk based on his recent Atlantic Monthly article, "The 'Science' of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea." Evidently McAllister got some flak from folks who were saying he is anti-research or anti-science, when, in fact, he is a researcher but is anti-pseudo science - against designers or design researchers attempting to provide oomph to their argument by using scientific-sounding language about their research, as if Science is Certain. He refers to the mathematician William Byers' Science of Certainty, and the economist F. A. Hayek's term, Scientism - both dealing with the idea that science is not certain, it is an ever-evolving body of work moving toward certainty, with some ideas more certain than others, but nothing immutable.

The Dangerous Idea? That research can be used to provide easy answers. The talk covered a topic I often raise with my students - the idea of trying to persuade with scientific-sounding language rather than a courageous and well-argued rationale based on instinct that is well informed by solid research, iterative testing, and analysis.

McAllister starts with a cogent dissection of the word "strategy," which comes from the Greek "στρατός" (stratos), or army (that which is spread out) and "ἀγός" (agos), or leader. Strategy is, in other words, "leading that which is spread out." Leadership in the face of uncertainty, ambiguity.

Humans don't like uncertainty and ambiguity, so the impulse to find easy answers is a strong one. Without the uncertainty, however, there is no need for real leadership. What we're left with, McAllister says, is merely following directions. To provide true leadership, rather than easy answers, is to face the ambiguity. This is the act of courage required of the designer.

I made a LiveScribe "pencast" of the talk, which you can view here. Click on the handwritten notes to hear the presentation, and you can click anywhere (provided you can read my handwriting!) to skip to different parts of the talk:

Update: Nate Bolt has put this pencast along with Ben's slides up on the Bolt | Peters site, so you can listen to the pencast as you flip through the slides. Ben's slides are delightfully quirky, however, so I defy you to figure out exactly which slides, in some cases, go with which part of the talk. But you'll get the idea.