Is The Interaction Between Design And Technology Shallow?

I want to start with a brief background on how I got thinking about this.  I’m not a writer, I have a degree in architecture but I work professionally as a product designer.  I design products and sometimes I end up manufacturing and marketing them myself and other times I license them to companies.

Like anyone, I have a lot of interests, and one of them is reading.  Up until two years ago, all the books I owned were physical books, either paperbacks or hardcovers, and I swore I would never switch to digital books.  I just liked the feeling of the book in my hands and being able to look at it and know (more or less) how much I had progressed or how much I had to go until the end.  I don’t read novels so I’m never anticipating a thrilling ending that will solve all the mysteries, but still, reaching the end of a book feels pretty good.  Like you’ve achieved something.  And then you can start another one and get that same feeling again.

But then, and I don’t know when this happened, I discovered the iBook store and its huge collection of digital books (I own mostly products from apple, so I tend to use their services as well).  And a lot of them were free, written by people that could now publish their works independently in a digital platform (in this case iBooks but there’s Amazon’s Kindle and others).  I’ve always bought books based on the topic, not on the author, besides, I’m not really good with names so pretty much (to me it feels like) every book I read comes from a new author.  So I started downloading free ebooks. And then, naturally, I started paying for them, until all the books I bought were digital.  And now I can’t even consider buying a non-digital book.  The features I have come to love of the digital ones?  I can have multiple copies, have them with me any time without having to carry a hefty tome around, have them perfectly organized and all in the same place.  And my favorite: I don’t lose them and my friends can’t borrow them from me to never return them, so I now own 100% of the books I buy.

So then I looked at my bookshelves. I had bought digital copies of all my books, so they had remained untouched and unused for some time now, except for when they were cleaned. And like software becomes outdated and needs constant information updates to stay relevant and working, so too does a bookshelf. It needs new books, which are information updates, added. My bookshelves were outdated in every sense of the word, and I wasn’t planning on adding any new books to them but I still valued them as furniture and liked them and wanted them there. So I started thinking: What could be done to update a bookshelf? I thought, if a bookshelf’s purpose is to hold books, and books are being substituted by bytes that take up no physical space (except for the reading device), then maybe the bookshelf should simply be called a shelf and be more flexible in its uses and accommodate all sorts of things, not just information (I also considered that what’s outdated and maybe even unnecessary is the word “bookshelf”, because really, it’s perfectly interchangeable with “shelf”).

So how can a shelf be made more flexible and adapt to a more digital time? There are three definitions to the word flexible as an adjective:

  1. Capable of being bent, usually without breaking; easily bent.
  2. Susceptible of modification or adaptation; adaptable.
  3. Willing or disposed to yield; pliable.

The first definition refers to a physical feature, while the last two refer to more intangible ones.  I already knew the shelf needed to be more flexible according to the second and third definition.  And I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or just a well thought out word, but I decided that the way to make a shelf more flexible according to the intangible definitions, is to make it physically flexible (the first definition).  And so I designed Shape-A-Shelf: The Flexible Shelf That Can Be Shaped Into Anything.  Since the shelf can be shaped into so many things, it’s only natural that along with its shapes, its uses and features change.  Even though you can lay it flat like a regular shelf, you can also shape it into so many different and crazy ways, and each design has its own features.  You can curve it to hold wine bottles horizontally, as a regular wine rack, etc.  You can even shape it to substitute bookends.  The shelf has been updated to a bookshelf (I know, I know) with included bookends.  Or a wine rack.  Or a spice rack.  Or a garage tool organizator.  Or whatever.  And all because I switched from physical books to digital books.  And this happens with many pieces of furniture that, up until not long ago, were very common either in houses or offices.  In an interview for The New York Times, Harry Allen, an industrial and interior designer says:

“What’s interesting, from a design standpoint is that the computer gets rid of so many things. You don’t need clocks because they’re on our phone. You don’t need file cabinets because they’re on our phone. A lot of things that used to take up room, like records and books, you don’t need.”

Shape-A-Shelf

Shape-A-Shelf: The flexible shelf that can be shaped to perform different functions

Technology’s Direct Consequences On Furniture Design

Every new software that comes out, any new material or manufacturing process directly affects the design process and outcome.  We as humans are inherently programmed with a thirst for knowledge, so if a new opportunity presents itself to do the things we enjoy but in a manner which allows us to experiment with newly acquired knowledge, we’ll take it! And so with new processes and materials, we come up with with unique shapes, patterns and arrays that couldn’t be done before.  Crazy stuff.

But to me it feels superficial.  People are easily influenced and we give value to the things that have been empirically taught to us.  And we have come to value empty design.  Design that is focused completely on being pretty, sometimes so much that it neglects function.  These is the design that gets press and so it’s the design we know and like.  As we experiment more with new technologies, materials and processes, design gets more vain.

Companies like Spell have made this obvious connection between technology and furniture, producing obvious and (obviously) boring results.  One example is their Nomad Tablet Table, which is a table with a slit that accommodates a tablet.  Is this really a fusion between technology and furniture or just a mediocre attempt?

Spell's Nomad Table

Spell’s Nomad Tablet Table

But there’s a more indirect and interesting way in which technology influences design, we just have to look deeper into the relationship between each piece of furniture and it’s technological context, and when we do, design will change it’s current (and semi-recent) path of superficiality into a more functional one that yields results so good, that form will follow function accordingly, and the product will be design that works and looks beautiful.