Design's Obsession With Innovation

Ian Bogost for The Atlantic:

For designers like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, art became an expression of structure, order, and clarity in life. The Braun industrial designer Dieter Rams evolved that clarity into 10 now-famous design principles, including innovation, utility, and longevity. Rams has had enormous impact on populist neo-minimalism in consumer goods—including Apple’s famously minimalist products and their subsequent influences, among them Mahabis slippers.

The problem: simplicity and innovation unmoored from function.

I think it’s a natural occurrence considering the proliferation of internet usage and services, enabling platforms like Kickstarter and social media in general.

Soon enough, for example, the iPhone might not have a headphone jack. Not because form must follow function, but because Apple’s product roadmap demands it… Innovation also changes purposes. Removing the eighth-of-an-inch jack from the smartphone changes function by changing form. Increasingly, innovation’s benefits are unclear. Sometimes it serves secret goals, as in Apple’s case. Other times, innovation becomes the goal, no matter its contribution to form or function.

This is probably a poor example to illustrate the problem, which I agree exists. They wouldn’t pursue it if it didn’t have the potential to make headphone technology better, which it does. (This post by, you guessed it, John Gruber succinctly goes into the possible scenarios and outcomes.)

The Mahabis slipper is used as an example more prominently, and rightly so. Their marketing oozes of the “reinvention” mentality — if you give their site a visit, you’ll see all the red flags: colors treated as exclusive “editions”, models taken straight from the Pacific Northwest, and even a page for the Mahabis brand.

Bogost again, after highlighting its downfalls as a functioning product:

These and other flaws are not fatal to the footwear. It’s a nice slipper that operates about as well as any 3-in-1 product you might see on late-night television. But mostly, the slipper’s function doesn’t really matter. In its place: the experience of anticipating, acquiring, and possessing a supposedly-designed object — even if at the expense of actually using it.

In its place is also the false (and prevalent) notion that the product alone can foster a certain lifestyle, stemming from an overestimation by its marketing of the product’s capacity to fundamentally change one’s life.

Brands like Muji pull it off because they have multiple products which are designed to work together functionally and complement each other aesthetically. Sure, Muji doesn’t come to mind when you think about innovation, but if you look around, not many brands do what they do, much less as well as they do.

When lifestyle products have adopted the design sensibilities of technology, innovation and simplicity are supposed to blend, offering access to both efficiency and meaning all at once. But the result shares more in common with associative marketing — connecting products to lifestyle aspirations — than it does with functionalist design...

Today, revolution is the ultimate branding exercise. The operation of a product — whether it’s an automobile, a smartphone, an app, or a slipper — is less important than the depth of its commitment to the rhetoric of innovation.

Trends tend to come and go, and sometimes they’ll work like a pendulum, as does many design trends. Once we’re tired of this “innovation” delusion, I’d like to think we’ll float back down to the reality of things.

Source: The Atlantic