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The following text was originally published in Scandinavian Newsletter [Groningen, Holland] 6/1991.


Written by JAN MICHL

Perhaps the best way of learning what the phenomenon of design is about is to analyze what goes on in our heads when we buy new things. Why is it that we want our belongings to do more for us than to function well? Why are we willing, as soon as we can afford it, to pay extra for things with appealing forms?

The answer, we will find, is that our preference for appealing forms has to do with our ownership of things. Whether we like it or not, the things we own tend to be perceived by others as a part of ourselves. As the owners of things we learn to take this fact into account, and choose things that show ourselves in a favourable light. For not only clothes make the man: many other things people own do the same. That�s why, when we are buying a product we give preference to one that we consider appealing - perhaps because we are simply ashamed of owning something which would be considered ugly by the people we respect, or because we want to mark our social identity in a positive way. Our criterion for an appealing thing is that it merely appeals not only to us but that it should also appeals to those we respect or look up to. The higher our social status, the more intense is the representational pressure we are exposed to, that is, the more numerous are those possessions which could be considered potentially damaging to our social status. We are all, to different degrees, exposed to such pressures, and most of the time we may loathe it. Nonetheless, without these pressures hardly any design culture would emerge at all. In a society where people would be forbidden to own things and have personal belongings, where they would be allowed only to use things but not to own them, the design of things would inevitably deteriorate because without representative pressures, and possibilities, the reason for making products appealing (appealing to whom?) would be absent. It is true that such a society is hard to imagine, but try to picture a less extreme case: how different the interiors of our homes would be if, for some reason, people never ever visited each other, and the ensuing pressures and chances to show our more public, representative side, were entirely absent.

However, it�s not only the owners of consumer goods who are exposed to such pressures. There are also those who produce consumer goods, the owners of means of production who must care about the visual representativeness of their businesses. To meet commercial competition of their rivals, they are forced to give representative forms not only to their products but also to the production equipments and the visible paraphernalia of production. In a competitive situation, the factory buildings, machines, workers' overalls and the company logo, all tend to be seen by others as representative of the producer's social standing. Public institutions and corporations are exposed to similar pressures, and join in this image competition too, mainly because they have to keep pace with the standards of design in the society around them.

Our design culture, and especially our industrial design culture, is the offspring of an economic system based on competition for profit. Producers compete not only by making things more functional but also by giving them more appealing forms which expand the users' opportunities to manifest their social status. In this sense the phenomenon of industrial design can be seen as an unintended by-product of an intentional human activity pursuing its own ends. In general, people applaud such by-products but denounce the intentions and motives that bring them about. Profit, competition, prestige, status, all of which make up the engine of our design culture, are words with rather bad press. For a long time it has been maintained that the only morally acceptable way to produce functional and beautiful things was to produce them "directly for human needs", and not as a result of commercial motives. However, the spectacular failure of the Soviet, East-European, and other planned economies where production for profit was replaced with "production for use", can serve as a reminder that competition for the buyer's money is still the most effective mechanism for generating functionally effective as well as aesthetically appealing products. Yet, the environmental problems that the high standard of living in the West has brought with it, can serve to remind us, too, that our mass design culture may not be wholly a blessing: it not only beautifies our environment but pollutes it as well. There seems to be no simple solution to this problem in sight, however, for we all want both to have the cake and eat it.

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Related articles by the same author:
"On Seeing Design as Redesign" (2002)
"Form Follows WHAT? The modernist notion of function as a carte blanche" (1995)
"On the Rumor of Functional Perfection" (1991)
Other online articles IN ENGLISH by Jan Michl
To Jan Michl's all online texts

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Several small changes made in January 2002