Take a moment and glance around. Unless you’re standing naked in the wilderness, you’re surrounded by products: mass-produced, man-made artifacts as far as the eye can see. Every one of these things was designed by someone (or more likely, several someones), but how often do we notice or appreciate that fact? A new short documentary from PBS’s Off Book web series sheds a bit of light on the often invisible, but massively influential practice of product design.
A true history of product design could easily fill out a feature-length film, so Off Book’s video is more of a quick primer. But it still manages to touch on the past, present, and future of product design, embodied by three luminaries: Harvey Moscot of Moscot Eyewear, Yves Behar of fuseproject, and Peter Schmitt of MIT’s Personal Robotics Group.
Moscot speaks to the aspects of product design that we usually take for granted, like the attention to detail which ensures that a pair of glasses “looks right” on your face and that the hinges on the stems will work for decades without breaking. Behar dismantles the modern myth of product design as “making things look pretty,” and explains that its “essential element is to have people in mind,” as he did when designing the One Laptop Per Child Project. Finally, Schmitt takes the “people in mind” idea one step further by explaining how new technology like affordable 3-D printing is breaking down the walls between product designer and product consumer. In the near future, we may all become our own product designers to some extent.
One key point that almost slips by unnoticed, though, is that of manufacturing feasibility. Behar briefly but notably touches on this: iIt’s one thing to mock up an amazing design in CAD or Photoshop, but if it can’t be manufactured with current technology at a realistic price, it’s not really product design–it’s wishful thinking. Even great designers like Charles Eames have had to learn this lesson the hard way: The award-winning chair he and Eero Saarinen designed was impossible to produce with mid-20th-century manufacturing techniques.
That’s what makes successful product design so fascinating and so rare: how a good or even great idea must harmonize with unforgiving physical and economic constraints. This is why James Dyson had to go through thousands of prototypes to create something as prosaic as a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t lose suction. Look around you again: How many invisible hours, months, or years of effort went into designing the stuff that surrounds us?