Browse through any design monograph or website and you’re bound to come across such terms as "tinkering," "iterative thinking," and "prototyping." In the design world, it’s understood that great products tend to emerge from an inquisitive, let’s-see-what-happens attitude.
Ideo, the international design and ideas firm, knows the value of experimenting and so has set up an internal project, Designs On, to cultivate an open and active design culture.
Since 2008, Ideo has produced limited-edition runs of semi-annual themed pamphlets (they’re on their fifth iteration) that spotlight 15+ takes on loaded topics such as food, birth, and global warming. This year’s motif, packaging, may seem less urgent. But it’s a “potent theme,” underscores Ideo, with consequences uniquely its own.
The publications take on themes that are meme-like in length—simultaneously concise and open-ended. The ambiguity is intentional, says Designs On Director Blaise Bertrand. “What we know as designers,” he tells Co. Design, “is that as the world becomes more complex, we have to deal with that complexity and distill it into messages that explain things in simple, yet sensitive, ways.” The purpose of the project, he explains, is to visualize that ambiguity in a tangible way that can affect people’s lives.
To a large extent, packaging mediates our experience with the world, probably more than any of us realize. This year’s charrette elicited a vast array of ideas that explore how packaging design can assume more participatory or guiding roles in a product’s or object’s consumption. Bertrand and co. guided teams to develop ideas around two categories: Relationships and Tensions.
"Relationships" targets designs that concern themselves with how a user interfaces with a product as well as how that product reflexively imparts impressions of places, things, and sensations back to the user. "City Scent," for example, constructs a tabletop skyline of souvenirs that store "olfactory profiles" of different metropoles. "Rice" gives the staple crop its due and champions it with universalist and easy-to-carry packaging. "Hygiene" is an elaborate container that conceals bulk purchases of toilet paper rolls.
"Tensions" targets the opposite. It includes concepts that identify a disconnect between the user, the object, and their material context. These designs manifest points of decay or waste—and then locate the consumer’s role in that process. "Chopsticks" very literally puts a high price on the resources expended to manufacture the globe’s supply of disposable wooden chopsticks. "Mr. Carcass" accommodates the queasy cook who’d prefer to handle freshly butchered meat with gloved hands. "Light My Ire" does the opposite: It makes it nearly impossible for a smoker to indulge in his or her "nasty habit."
On the Designs On site, it says packaging as a design field is "crowded" and "arguably over-designed." While the topic might be overplayed, Bertrand says his team made sure to tackle the theme in an unorthodox manner, using a three-prong strategy to guide the design process. First, designers—working in teams of two or three from their home studios—were asked to select an ordinary, everyday object as a starting point for their individual projects. Second, they had to choose a verb that may or may not correspond to that object. Finally, they were asked to imbue the project with a specific emotion that illustrated their intention for the design.
What might seem like an overly fussy procedure becomes fairly simple when you plug all the variables in. The “leftovers” prototype featured in the pamphlet details a meal’s components, price, and the signature of the chef who prepared it right on the “doggy bag” packaging itself. The object, verb, and emotion? A takeway vessel (the object) contains leftover food that will probably be wasted, indicating a level of privilege (the verb—yeah, not actually a verb) and also shame (emotion) on the part of the consumer. Even more straightforwardly, the "CNDM project reimagines condom packaging (object) as a discrete and “pocket-friendly” affair that won’t cause you any embarrassment (emotion) when you stir up the courage to approach the checkout counter to make your purchase (verb).
Eighteen designs made the cut, all of which are featured in the new brochure on the website. The top prototypes—the Designs On team calls them “provocations”—are compiled in thematic ways that tell a visual story. And while some deal with serious subject matter, such as global waste or world hunger, all of the projects have a playful, humorous tone. For Bertrand, both storytelling and humor are pillars of the experiment: Storytelling works by synthesizing complexity into a compelling and digestible format, and humor helps us humanize content that is abstract or alienating.
Of all the designs, which stand out most? Bertrand immediately points out “Expired,” a colorful idea to repackage medication bottles that “ripen” with brown spots, indicating, just like a banana, whether the pills are still safe to consume. He also appreciates “Cigg Seeds,” which makes use of the hundreds of billions of discarded cigarettes regularly flicked to the ground; the key is a modified biodegradable cigarette butt that’s embedded with wildflower seeds that bloom into lush meadows—“from butts to blooms,” reads the copy.
But Bertrand saves his most excited talk for “Synthetic Biology,” a visionary project that theorizes biology’s role in design (and vice versa). The prototype leverages a kind of bacteria that is drawn to a light source but which also reacts to it; once gathered across the light bulb, the substance solidifies into a cup. As the user drinks from the cup, the bacteria emits probiotics that amplify your senses of smell and taste.
“It’s clearly a provocation,” Bertrand says, “because we’re not there yet.” But that willingness to see into the future of design and visualize its possibilities is what Designs On is all about.