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Functionality as design trope

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Thursday, Sep 24, 2009

At Design Observer, Dmitri Siegel looks at the design of products in ordinary supermarkets—design not selling itself as “design-y”. “To end up here, Design ideas need to trickle down well past the middle-brow and survive extreme pressures of low margins and fast turn,” he somewhat snobbishly remarks (and I think the capped D in design is a telling typo).


He points out the ludicrous ergonomic features of grooming products and the ubiquitous easy-pour spouts and remarks that these pseudo-functional additions to packaging are mere ornament. The convenience these things are supposed to supply (but most likely don’t) is also, I would add, ornamental. Siegel’s conclusion is that the design trades in functionality as a sign rather than anything that is actually useful. Rather than an after-the-fact evaluation of a product’s actual ease of use, functionality becomes a design trope. Convenience as a value works the same way, I think—an appealing idea in the abstract even when it never manifests itself in practice. Our craving for convenience is so inculcated in us that it suffices for a package to evoke the possibility of it for the package to have an added appeal. We can buy “convenience” without experiencing it.


Siegel cites architect Alfred Loos’s “Ornament and Crime” (pdf), a manifesto from 1908 that’s as insane as you could want any manifesto to be, impossible to tell how serious he is from our irony-saturated point in history. (“One can measure the culture of a country by the degree to which its lavatory walls are daubed,” Loos declares in a typical aphorism.) Loos’smain argument is that ornament is atavistic, though Siegel emphasizes Loos’s claim that approving of ornament “was a tacit endorsement of society’s disregard for the quality of its workers’ lives.” Siegel thinks the reverse is now true: “The ornament of today is the complete opposite of that described by Loos — to him ornament symbolized excessive labor, today ours symbolizes pervasive leisure.”


He defends that claim with a reference to Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption. Siegel suggests that the fake functionality of supermarket design allows for a conspicuous consumption of unnecessary utility.


Veblen describes how a rich man’s cane is a symbol of his membership in the leisure class precisely because he will never need to use it. The grip strips on a toothbrush and easy-pour spouts are exactly the same. They symbolize effort we will never have to exert.


We want to consume utility we don’t need and then laud ourselves for the effort we have been saved from making, that is presumed to thereby be held in reserve and accrues to us. This then becomes a mark of distinction; the product’s design allows us to claim for ourselves the effort it saves us from making. The contradiction takes on a signaling significance, in Siegel’s view:


The fully equipped chef’s kitchen is a potent symbol of affluence precisely because anyone who can afford it clearly does not need to cook. The $400 Patagonia rain shell and the sport utility vehicle symbolize physical challenges and confrontations with the elements that their suburban owners can easily avoid, and so on.


Today’s ornament mimics utility so that we can make a show of unnecessarily amassing it. When we have the finest kitchen equipment money can buy, every night we eat out becomes eve more redolent of our wastefulness, and therefore our wealth (if you accept Veblen’s logic that gratuitous waste equals a proof of status). The overdesigned products in the store allow the middle class to experience a version of this joyous profligacy.


I think there is something to that, but I found Loos’s take on this idea more compelling: “Humanity is still to groan under the slavery of ornament,” he declares, though as a species we have “progressed far enough to find pleasure in purchasing a plain cigarette case, even if it cost the same as one that was ornamented.” This still seems relevant. Products for the wealthy are those that can eschew ornament, transcend it, because the stratospheric prices obviate the need the products to compete on the more mundane level of superficial ornament. The lack of ornament connotes engineering expense, the effort of clean design, the quality of the manufacturing, the pride in the workmanship as it is expressed through the functionality. They are made for those people who don’t need to indulge in shopping for leisure, people who don’t need to amaze themselves with the unfathomable bounty in supermarkets and 99-cent stores, people who can afford more expensive pursuits and don’t want disposable goods to allow to shop more. Shopping provides the lower class the ersatz, compensatory thrills of purchasing power over an array of crappy manufactured goods—highly ornamented to make them more disposable and to justify the investment of more of our energy in the foibles of retail. But the rich don’t have to resort to such cheap thrills. 

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