Ronald B. Kemnitzer, FIDSA
Professor, School of Architecture & Design | Virginia Tech
As our world rushes headlong into the embrace of globalization, it may appear to many that aesthetic diversity and visual richness of product design is in decline. For decades, U.S. designers sought to emulate the refined, understated visual style of western Europeans. Now that we have climbed to that plateau of accomplishment, other cultures are emulating us, principally countries in the Far East. In our rush to develop a visual language that is universal in appeal, it may be that it is more universally bland rather than richly proclaiming its culture of origin.
Of the 130 winners of the 2004 IDEA/Business Week design competition, 33 were from 14 countries outside the U.S.—Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and Taiwan. While the designs are visually refined and certainly highly functional, there is virtually no way to visually relate the designs to their culture of origination with very few exceptions. The most notable of those is the Chevrolet Super Sport Roadster (SSR) that conjures memories of cruising the strip, rock and roll music, and a time in which the future was viewed far more optimistically than we allow ourselves in this era. This design is so unique and powerful because it celebrates its’ culture of origination rather than emulating a homogenized global design aesthetic.
While one might claim that many (most) of the IDEA winners lack an identifiable place of origin, it can’t be denied that they exhibit a high level of visual sophistication. In other words, they’re beautiful. Making products beautiful is one of the things that we as designers do best, yet we seem to have little understanding of how we do it, of why they look so good. Almost all designers will tout visual symmetry as one of the key elements of beauty. It’s one of the tools that we use most often. Perhaps we are influenced by our perception of human physical beauty, which is driven by symmetry and understood as such. In addition to symmetry, there are numerous proportional systems that are used extensively by designers to impart ordered ‘beauty’ to their work. The proportional ratio of the golden rectangle (1:1.618), for example, is one that is extensively used by designers to bring visual order to manufactured products. While the relationship of the ratio of the golden rectangle in its application to architecture is well known, and to a lesser extent in product design, it is lesser known for its relationship to the human body. For example, the relative proportions of the bones of our fingers conform to the ratio, as does the position of our navel relative to our overall height. There are many more examples, all of which combine to suggest that we humans are ‘hard-wired’ to appreciate the symmetry and proportions of universal beauty that we, ourselves exhibit. Braun appliances have for decades been designed with strict adherence to the proportions of the golden rectangle, symmetry, and alignment of details. Braun design was emulated by U.S. designers as we sought to achieve the sophisticated visual austerity that Braun designs projected and our automobiles didn’t. Judging by the visual austerity and almost universal use of black, white, and silver of the 2004 IDEA winners, it appears that design has embraced these ideals universally (globally). While our work has become more sophisticated and universal, it has also become visually homogenized with little indication of cultural origin and diversity.