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Demystifying design

Good design is honest and affordable and can be appreciated by all. And this is the objective of this column, which will be written by practising designers for the Tuesday issue of the Metroplus.

THE WORD `Designer' evokes elitist associations of exclusive merchandise that is branded, hyped about and marketed at steep prices to high-end customers. The `Designer' becomes a brand much sought after. In this context, `Design' is the preserve of the upmarket clientele. But there is another side to design, which, to borrow a phrase, we shall call design with a small `d', and this is what we shall be talking about. This is design that tries to improve the quality of life in small ways that could ultimately add up to a better life.

We live in apartments and houses, use mass-produced or handcrafted objects, commute in private or public transport, work in offices and institutions. There is a constant interaction between us, the objects we use and the environment we are in. When the experience is agreeable, that is, when a product works well or when the environment is conducive to work, we feel better. When the experience is not good, we could get stressed. To a certain extent, therefore, these things affect us more than we realise.

There are well-designed products where you intuitively know how to use them and there are badly designed ones that come with complex user manuals that explain functions you do not need. Good design sticks to the basics and makes it simple.

There are places you step in and intuitively feel that everything is right. The lighting, colours, materials, layout, furniture, signage, etc., all add up to creating an experience that is more than just the sum of the elements. Design deals with this experience and aims to make it a pleasant and delightful one. It deals with the interface between the person and the thing/place. When you hear somebody talking about aesthetics, ergonomics, function, etc., what it all ultimately adds up to is to make the experience of perceiving, using and sometimes owning a stimulating and satisfying one.

This experience can be bad, satisfactory, good or delightful. While design must address all functional requirements to make the experience a good one, great design goes beyond the functional criteria. It adds something indefinable to make the experience a delight. These are the products we desperately want to possess, the places we love going to over and over again. What is it they have that we like so much?

If design were just about satisfying function, all chairs would look the same. Why are there so many types of chairs? Better still, why are people still creating more and more chairs? This question could be asked of most products we use. It is not an easy question to answer. There is a constant urge to create something new and there is a constant urge to possess something new. Design is not about cosmetic styling to put old wine in new bottles, although this appears to be an activity that keeps happening. This cosmetic styling probably adds a few months to a product's shelf life but cannot sustain it from competition in the form of genuinely newly thought out products. Design is about new possibilities and ways to make them happen.

Some of us intuitively have a strong design sense. We know what looks good with what, what colours are appropriate, what the lighting should be, and so on, that helps us create spaces that energise us. Some us feel that we are incapable of such decisions and either do not bother with them at all or call in the services of a designer. If you are clear about what you want and the designer appreciates your requirements and provides a good solution, the result is a place you are comfortable in.

If you are not clear and the designer does your place in his particular style without much thought to the requirement or your likes and dislikes, you end up with a place you are not comfortable in and cannot identify with. It is not you at all.

The people who will be writing this column are practising designers who collectively believe that good design is honest and affordable.

Design is not an exclusive domain that can be understood and appreciated by a few. It is in the interest of everyone to understand and appreciate design.

As we become more sensitive to possibilities, we can demand better things and services and become less satisfied with mediocre ones. This will ultimately lead to better products and environments in the long run.


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