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A Design Approach: Context Is Key

Designer and teacher Scott Klinker believes that the best way to design objects is to create the context before you design them. And possibly what will result is something else entirely.

Scott Klinker has an assignment from a client. He is to design furniture for a company that, as he puts it, "wants to own the idea of live-work." Meaning that they want to have furniture that melds one"s home life with one"s vocational life. So, one might imagine, that Klinker, Designer-in-Residence at the renowned Crankbrook Academy of Art (first president and the man who set the course for this institution: Eliel Saarinen, the father of Eero), would simply spend a whole lot of time looking at offices and home interiors and determining what would be an appropriate melding of the two.

Instead, Klinker goes further. Much further. He puts Google Earth on a computer monitor. "This is Detroit," he says, then zooms in. "This is the Ren Cen." And he moves the mouse so the view goes to a nearby vacant site on the Detroit River. "What does Detroit need the most?" he rhetorically asks, then answers, "Happy, productive people." Again, a question: "How do we attract these people here? That"s a big equation, but part of it is architecture. So I created this for myself, a narrative. I"m calling it the 'Knowledge Cottage Guild.'" And he shifts the image on the screen from the vacant lot to a landscape he has developed: a pair of parallel rectangular buildings separated by a street upon which there are a few vehicles. Think 21st century row houses. He goes on to explain, "In 10 or 15 years the economic and corporate realities are going to change the fabric of our cities. We are going to have to fend for ourselves a little bit more and change our expectations about what we can expect. Kind of a downsizing of the American dream. Companies are outsourcing everything, which creates a network of free-agent workers, knowledge workers, who will get together and work on projects in a team-based manner. They will work together for a while, then disband-sort of the Hollywood model of work.

"In this case I am saying people are going to be living and working in the same space, negotiating contrasting needs. What can we design for them to support that? I created this scenario," he says, gesturing at the image of what is now clear as being a neighborhood where people both work and live, the mixed-use model taken to a new level. "I am not an architect, nor do I claim that this is good architecture or smart urban planning-I might be creating the live-work slums of the future," he says with a bit of self-depreciation. "But the goal is to support these contrasting needs."

Wait a minute. Remember that this is about designing furniture. Chairs. Desks. Things like that. He"s designed a neighborhood and created a scenario about it. What"s going on?

 

Context matters.

It is a way of design that he teaches at Cranbrook and practices as the principal of Scott Klinker Design (speaking of his positions, he says that at Cranbrook, where he has taught since 2001, "I am expected to have a practice and walk the talk. I"m not just here to teach, but to lead by example."). It is about thinking about things that are "contextually relevant" and then making things. "I don"t like to go straight to the object. I like to think about the context around the object, and use that as an inspiration for new ideas about what the product will be. And maybe it won"t be a product at all."

In fact, he says that the result of his contextualization for the "live-work" furniture project may turn out to be something other than furniture. Maybe it will turn into fashion accessories...or even transportation design.

Klinker, who holds a degree in Industrial Design from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and an MFA in Design from Cranbrook, has had varied experience. He designed cell phones for Ericsson ("Cell phones are basically bricks with buttons"), then moved to renowned IDEO Product Development in Palo Alto, where he worked for clients including Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Steelcase. Then it as a stint in Kanazawa, Japan, where he was the chair of Product Design at the KIDI/Parsons Design Institute. Then back to Cranbrook, but this time as the head of a department, not student.

 

A strong story.

Oddly enough, although Cranbrook is proximate to the headquarters and design centers of all of the Detroit Three, they"ve never been asked to design a car. "I"ve often wondered what would happen if Cranbrook tried to design cars," Klinker says, then goes on to suggest that they would apply the same methodology of creating a story in order to better understand the view, attitude and cultural values associated with a vehicle. "It would have to be a strong story in terms of specific values, life style values. We would look at fashion trends, and at specific audiences."

And the specificity is the rub. "One of the biggest challenges of the car industry is that it operates under the assumptions of mass production, when the market is saturated with mass products. There are incredible tooling costs, and they want to get the biggest market for the tooling investment, but there are so many choices out there, you need to be a lot more specific in terms of positioning the idea of your product within all of the lateral choices, the landscape, the ecology of choices. That"s why I think companies like Scion have been really smart, positioning their products specifically to audiences who might be buying their first car, or are young professionals. I"m not crazy about some of their designs, but I really like the specificity," he explains.

One of the problems that he sees in automotive design-as well as that in other industries, including consumer electronics-is that there is too much sameness. This is almost a commoditization. Consider, for example, the success of the iPod...and how it has spawned all manner of iPod-looking devices. Clearly, if the design of mass products becomes, in effect, simply working off of successful templates, then the question can simply be whether design should be outsourced. In an article on the Core77 website (http://www.core77.com/reactor/09.06_klinker.asp), Klinker wrote, that "formulaic ID skills are in greater supply than demand, and when quality supply is plentiful, the job goes to the lowest bidder-in China." Yes, that"s right: If design is a function of doing variants of what others have done, then companies will look to get it done cheaply.

 

Competitive innovation.

So what"s the solution for companies that are looking for a competitive advantage-and for designers who would prefer not having their jobs disappear? "Design is always the fuzzy element in business," Klinker acknowledges. "Design is always problematic because design wants to push the culture forward and business wants to reduce risk. Taking risks is uncomfortable." And in an industry when things are generally predicated on producing tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of things that are pretty much the same, if not identical, then sticking with the tried-and-true seems to be the way to go. "I see so much sameness coming out of the car industry," Klinker says. But he thinks things may be changing, as the U.S. based companies come to grips with environmental and economic demands (e.g., reduced emissions; comparatively high fuel prices) and with the success of companies like Toyota and Honda, which are based in a country where such issues have long been a concern ("I lived there from "96 to "99 and even then gasoline was $5 per gallon").

"But we can catch up. American is innovative and deals with problems in innovative ways," he says, explaining that he thinks the current situation in the U.S. auto industry may present the kinds of challenges that will bring out the required innovation.

"Taking risks is uncomfortable," he acknowledges. What does a car company do? "Maybe it"s a matter of having a smaller brand that"s experimental that runs in parallel with the bigger brand. You see this all the time in the furniture world." As an award-winning furniture designer, he knows a little something about that.

"Furniture never exists on its own; it always exists in an architectural context," Klinker says. And so do cars.