Alice Rawsthorn — Happiness & Design
Wednesday May 16 2012
Alice Rawsthorn has a long and detailed history with design, which is well elaborated on at her website. She is presently the design critic for the International Herald Tribune and is a former director of the Design Museum in London. She delivered the keynote address at 7 Kinds of Happiness, held as part of DesignEX.
Rawsthorn kicked off her keynote address by defining design as a resourceful, intuitive response to a problem — whether that means crafting a clay cup so you no longer have to drink with your hands, or developing quantum computing so that your iPad can get a little lighter.
The history of design, she asserted, has focused on pragmatism, rather than happiness. Rather than the rationalism of ‘less is more’ and ‘form follows function’ (which are both also valid concepts in their own right), Rawsthorn believes that happiness needs to be a key consideration.
In her opinion, there are three non-negotiable elements of good design:
1. Function. The function has to be apparent and fulfilled. To paraphrase Donald Judd in his 1993 essay It’s hard to find a good lamp, if a chair is not a chair, it’s simply ridiculous.
2. Conscience. If it gives cause for concern in any way, it therefore does not make you happy — and is hence bad design. This could be ethical, environmental, or a fear of danger associated with its use.
3. Integrity. Again, if the design or the environment around the design does not have integrity, it doesn’t matter how perfect the function, how revelatory the innovation.
Rawsthorn noted that there are many, many optional elements of design, but pulled out two key ones that are particularly pertinent today:
1. Beauty. Yes, this is optional. It helps if the design outcome is aesthetically pleasing, but it is not essential. She gave the example of post-it notes — they are very well resolved as a designed object, but she doubts many would argue their virtue as things of beauty.
2. Innovation. Again, of course, this can help, but it is an optional extra. If the non-negotiable elements are fulfilled, and innovation can be achieved, then you’ve hit a winner. But, like beauty, it is not essential.
To hear Rawsthorn talk about the importance of happiness in design, how it is being addressed in design today, and a couple of recent designs that have made her happy, hit the triangle under the image to play the interview conducted with her after the talk. And head to her website for more information on Rawsthorn, and to find much of her journalism around the subject of design.