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29. March, 2010 / Idun

What is design?

Or maybe that is not the right question to ask. I would have been sat here writing until the end of time. I believe the question I should ask is what design is to me.

For 3 years my head was swimming in a lake of design processes, methods, research, prototyping, and material testing. I did my BA degree in product design. I quite enjoyed the course, and I enjoyed the way of working (maybe not quite so much the deadlines and late nights, though). What I am not very fond of is the road from prototype to finished product, ready to go on a shelf in a shop. Although I live in a society that lives off mass-production and mass-consumption,  there are already so many products in production in this world, and I don’t want to contribute to it. In Norwegian there is a term called “bruk og kast”; use and discard. For a long time this is what our society has been about, and it’s not a healthy way to live, and I mean healthy for our planet as well as for ourselves. So much is wasted, and there is a limit to what our planet can take. Adding to it by making more and more products with additional pollution and production material waste doesn’t seem like the “sustainable” thing to do. We have come a long way in terms of making the life cycle of products more sustainable and environmentally friendly, but there is still much left to do.

I think my heart lies with the unique and short-travelled objects, smaller quantities and batches. During my BA I worked with Oslo Prison on two occasions, designing objects to be produced in workshops within the prison walls, and then to be sold in a small shop right outside the entrance. The setting for this kind of design and production is quite different than the ones we find in many design offices around the world. A very important aspect for these projects was a social one. These objects were to be produced by inmates in the prison, men of very variable knowledge and skills. There are some that are trained and skilled craftsmen who can easily make an object just by being given the measurements. Yet others have hardly had any education, and might not know basic skills that most would take for granted. I myself experienced meeting a man that did not know how to use a screwdriver.

Mastering is a key word in this context. It is making as therapy. The inmates are employed in these workshops to have something constructive to do while paying their debt to society. Many of them have lived lives full of disappointments, and have never mastered anything. Imagine how it then feels to create something, and hear that another person thought it was so well done that they bought it. Something YOU made! And hopefully that will be something that gives a boost for the inmates to become better and honest people.

Working with (and in) the prison made me think more about what design is to me, and what is important to me in my practice. In the past I always saw design as something related to f.ex. Ikea. When I first started my BA I thought about how incredible it would be to work for Ikea! I was taught to design objects for functionality, focusing on use and users, and that as a designer I am a problem solver. I don’t feel like a problem solver, and I don’t work with design briefs in the same way as I would have done as a product designer. I think that now my art side has come more into focus.

Product design is still very much a part of me, but the problem solving has backed into the shadows. What has become more important is the thoughts and story behind the objects, the inspiration and the aesthetic value. Design to me is a process, but not one of solving a problem. It is the road from idea to the finished object, and how to best convey that idea through my chosen material. I think functionality is important to me as well, but I see it more as a potential functionality. I would like there to be a functionality, for example making vessels that can hold liquid, but it is not what is most important. It is like a foundation; it has to be there, but it is not what is in the spot light.

To me design is a process, a process from idea to finished object. It means functionality. It means telling the story behind an object, telling the story of the design process, and the thoughts and ideas behind it. It means something unique and true.

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