BRUNO MUNARI, GEORGE NELSON, AND VICTOR PAPANEK
DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO A PROBLEM
DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO A PROBLEM
Industrial Design is a complicated profession. A designer can take multiple paths and approaches to a given problem. Since its conception, there has been a debate of what is most important in Industrial Design, and while the constant variables are form and function, there are also components that have been and keep being added to the equation as society and technology evolve. The profession has always been influenced by both art and engineering. Some designers tend to lean more to arts while others prefer the engineering aspect of design. This diversity in the Industrial Design industry is as extensive and complicated as the variety of products that can be created. The different methodology each designer acquires has a deep relationship with his creative process and with what drives his goals.
This semester I studied three designers: Bruno Munari, George Nelson and Victor Papanek. They had different responses to a problem that we’re still facing today – finite resources – and while being roughly contemporaneous industrial designers, each have quite different methodologies and design philosophies.
As mentioned above, this profession has multiple approaches and methodologies as it has been very diverse since its origins. After the Industrial Revolution, design was largely responsible for the design of aesthetic “treatments” for manufactured products, treatments that were highly indicative of its era, the Victorian age. Rejecting this use of unnecessary decoration, designers like William Morris were part of the Arts and Crafts movement. These designers saw the necessity for a new design that expressed the function of the thing itself and emphasized the materials and quality of construction. The Arts and Crafts movement suggested that each material incorporated its own value and the first principle of good design was to respect the properties of the materials used. The goal was to replace the machine mass-produced goods with well-made, well-designed products. The Arts and Crafts led to a series of movements, with different approaches to design, which set the path to modernism.
A movement known as “streamlining” was derived from the study of aerodynamics, the elimination of wind-resistance, during the 1920s. It had an enormous influence on industrial design in the 1930s. After the Wall Street crash in 1929, the market was nothing like the 1920s, the postwar period, when there was a boom of jobs, money and consumerism. The need for cheaply-made merchandise with public appeal grew as the Depression lengthened. It was a new movement emerging in the 1930s. Industrial designers applied styling to consumer products, to attract Depression buyers, and brought marketing skills to their profession. This new styling was temping and looked expensive, but it could be mass-produced by machines at lower cost. While some designers like Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Dorwin Teague and Raymond Loewy embraced it, others were against it, as it led sometimes to superficial changes in the design and to planned obsolescence.
The approaches of Victor Papanek, George Nelson and Bruno Munari were quite different, but they all had in common the rejection of styling and streamlining. George Nelson’s view was that for an object to be considered good design, it needed to be honest. Honesty of a product can be referred to the idea of the Arts and Crafts philosophy of being true to materials. The goal being to appreciate a material’s properties, leave it in sight and not to cover up structure or joints. This view can be appreciated in Nelson’s design of the Comprehensive Storage System for Herman Miller, where the poles that maintain the structure are exposed and the properties of the material, extruded aluminum, were embraced. The design was made in order to work with the material, not forcing the material to work with the design. For George Nelson, this was good design. He also designed to his own criteria and taste believing that marketing research was not necessary: as long as he liked the design, there was going to be market for it.
In contrast to George Nelson’s idiosyncratic style, Bruno Munari’s unadorned design style made his products appear anonymous. He believed that to force the designer’s style in order to make it his own was wrong. Bruno Munari was more focused on the function of an object than its aesthetics. However, he believed that by achieving the right design for function, aesthetics would follow naturally as a consequence. Most of his products were made of unadorned materials and, like Victor Papanek, he tried to reduce design to its simplest form. I would say that he applied aesthetic functionalism to his designs while Victor Papanek applied extreme functionalism.
Victor Papanek believed that only a small part of the designer’s responsibility lies on the area of aesthetics; he was completely focused in finding the practical, most efficient solution for a given problem. He was harshly criticized for his design of a radio receiver developed for the Third World. Made of a used juice can, it used paraffin wax and a wick as a power source and cost only nine cents in 1966. It was a very well considered design, but it was ugly. Victor Papanek refused to paint it or make any aesthetic changes because, according to him, it would be unethical to impose his “taste” on people from a different culture. This action earned him the title of "Garbage Can Designer"(1), and yet he was an inspiration for other people to design ethical products. George Nelson and Bruno Munari were also an inspiration to other designers in their work, and it was interesting to learn how these designers came to be so creative and to discover what was the source of their inspiration.
George Nelson argued that we’ve been all conditioned from birth to believe that everything can be discovered by observing, measuring, analyzing, and thinking, but that we could not think our way into creative behavior. According to George Nelson the creative process has as a result a “Zap”, a glimpse of what a design could be, which consisted on a common collaboration between the left and the right lobes of the brain. According to Nelson, the left lobe resolves linear problems like language and analysis, while the right lobe deals with visual matters, synthesizing activities and non-linear situations.(2) He stated that what we call inspiration, seems to derive from the right lobe’s ability connect what seems irrelevant pieces of information to make sense. But for the right lobe to be able to pick these non-relevant pieces of information, the left lobe must do its homework of gathering and collecting data and taking the problem as far as it can. It is then when the right lobe mysteriously searches for things that can be fit together. Nelson gives tremendous importance to observation as the way of gathering and collecting data, the most information the left lobe collects, the more information the right lobe was to work with, therefore, the probabilities of being creative or getting inspired increases.
George Nelson’s creative process is reflected in his products as well, where this concept of switching through different information is also applied to his designs. When most designers show more interest in the getting to the final product or result, George Nelson was most interested in the initial conception of a product, where the idea or zap comes together, then switching along different solutions or to the next problem. Contrasting his friend and colleague Charles Eames’ method, which George Nelson described as “rigorous”, he described his own method as a “grass hopper sort of way”.(3) However, George Nelson and Charles Eames did share the same passion for good design and they both looked for different ways to experiment and use existing materials.
In contrast to George Nelson, Bruno Munari could also be described as rigorous. In his book “Da cosa nasce cosa” he describes the “metodologia progettuale” with a series of steps that, even when he mentions that these are flexible steps, are very well organized and seem to encourage you to “think your way into the creative behavior” (something that George Nelson stated you couldn’t do). This methodology has a strong contrast with the nationally recognized Bruno Munari’s Methodology, used for education and formation of the individual. This methodology is based on the affinity of children to express themselves freely without the interference of adults, which one could say means no steps or rules. This encourages them to become independent and to resolve problems by themselves. Bruno Munari developed a great interest in children’s education; he was concerned by lack of products available for the education of children and began to design his own. This of course was triggered by a personal motivation, the birth of his son Alberto, but even after his son got older, he continued to design for children. In 1977 he started the laboratories "Playing with Art", held at the Brera Art Gallery in Milan, to stimulate children’s creativity. This was Munari's very first workshop for children. Since then, he conducted children's workshops all over Italy, and worldwide in countries such as Venezuela, Israel, Spain, U.S., France, and Japan. These workshops are a great part of Bruno Munari’s legacy; according to him, these workshops were the most significant piece of work he ever did.(4)
Victor Papanek’s creative approach to design was not only of a commitment to children, but to mankind in general. He looked for solutions to the problems of people with “real needs”, meaning the handicapped, children, the medical profession, among other important fields he felt were neglected by most designers. His design ethics made him a constant critic of the car industry; he was highly concerned by the lack of safety at that time in the car industry, not only for drivers but also in the manufacturing process. Papanek’s inspiration was his constant concern about the environment and his desire to help people with real needs, but he also found inspiration by looking into different cultures’ vernacular designs. He focused his efforts on the simplification of design, minimal usage of natural resources and decentralization of society. According to Papanek, by decentralizing society towns and cities would be more independent, being able to apply vernacular materials to their constructions, consume local produce, and use sustainable energy.
While these three designers’ methodologies are different, they all follow a defined line on what they believe is important to design. For my personal methodology I applied the same defined principle. When designing a new product, Industrial designers must question what the goal of the product is and what need they will fulfill by making this product. Sometimes designers can get carried away by trends and meaningless “needs”, which lead them to design useless products with planned obsolescence destined for the landfill. Sometimes it is difficult to be creative in a world where everything we need seems to be already invented, and yet there is still a necessity to change the way we design. Designers need to understand the limited resources our planet has; we keep designing as if the earth was an endless source of materials with no limits or consequences. It seems that in the past 10 years we see the sight of a “greener path”, were society and governments are becoming more conscious about the use of resources and nature’s degradation, but we’re still far from a sustainable future.
My design approach to these environmental problems is to turn to nature for answers. Nature, imaginative by necessity, has adapted, changed, and solved most of the problems we are dealing with. The more our world looks and functions like the natural world the more likely we are to preserve this planet.(5) Industrial design can no longer be only about looks, function and marketing, and it doesn’t end at the purchase of the product. With this in mind, my proposed methodology is Biomimicry as a way to design environmentally friendly products. I find Victor Papanek, George Nelson and Bruno Munari’s methodologies interesting and appealing in different ways, and I’ll say that I can identify similarities between elements of my proposed methodology and elements of each of these designers’ methods. From Bruno Munari’s methodology I would like to apply the functionalist aesthetic idea. I will focus my products on the function of the object, but at the same time convey the consequential aesthetics that, according to Bruno Munari, follow with the right design for function. From George Nelson I would like to apply the experimentation of materials and encouraged observation to find inspiration (applied to observation of nature in particular). Finally, from Victor Papanek I will use his environmental ethics as guidelines when designing for the conservation of resources. These three designers have influenced my work in some way, and their philosophies and techniques in design have also helped to redefine my own.
(1) Papanek, Victor. Preface to Design for the real world: human ecology and social change. Chicago, Ill: Academy Chicago, 1985.
(2) Nelson, George. George Nelson on design. New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1979.
(3) Abercrombie, Stanley. George Nelson: The design of modern design. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.
(4) Bruno Munari teaches us about the great possibilities that lie within children." "Think Daily".http://www.thinktheearth.net/thinkdaily/report/rpt_34.html (accessed December 4, 2008).
(5) Biomimicry Institute. http://www.biomimicryinstitute.org/ (accessed December 4, 2008).