Poetry meet Prose, and Spreadsheets

md-abacus2An aspect of design that gets short shrift in the media is quantitative measurement.  Designs – be they of cities, buildings, coffee cups, or posters are too seldom analyzed with an economist’s perspective.   Far too often, designs are recognized for being innovative, particularly functional, or formally beautiful and that’s all.   I believe this obscures the reality that design is essentially an attempt to respond to a need within the constraints of scarcity.

Economics, the study of scarcity, is a driving force in the creation and distribution of design and yet most design writers and the media don’t see the aesthetic curve and the demand curve on equal footing. 

 Quantitative analysis becomes particularly important within one of the most urgent issues of our day: examining the environmental impact of a designed object.  Few organizations recognize or respond to this reality, but among them are the US Green Building Council and McDonough and Braungart Consultants with their respective LEED and Cradle-to-Cradle certifications.  These organizations employ considered, albeit imperfect systems to measure and rate the effect of designs on human and environmental health.  Quantitative factors like energy inputs, percent recyclability, and carbon emissions are given an accounting. 

Without referring to such systems we are in danger of having words like ‘green’ and ‘sustainable,’ which often purport to stand in for thoughtful analysis, become as meaningful as ‘gourmet’ or ‘organic’ because of their flagrant misuse.  Media and industry need not submit all designs to accepted authorities before offering a judgment or description of them, but I insist that they should more freely acknowledge what they don’t know about designs and focus, when possible, on what measured data they can offer.  Thanks to technology like the Internet, there is an ever-growing ocean of instantly searchable, sharable, and sortable data at our disposal, and all though we must become better filters, we should take more full advantage of this resource. 

The history of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, considered by many to be the world’s authority on good design, has sent an inconsistent message about quantitative data’s relationship with design and perhaps illustrates part of the problem today.  The very first exhibitions in the Architecture & Design department’s history at MoMA, including the Machine Art exhibition of 1934, Useful Objects of American Design under $10 in 1940, 100 Useful Objects of Fine Design (available under $100) in 1947-48, and the Good Design series organized by Edgar Kaufman Jr. in 1950-54 all acknowledged the importance of the market price of objects, and even printed these prices on display texts and in the Museum’s catalogues.  But after the 50s this acknowledgment waned.  Up to this day, the economic aspects of objects, so integral to understanding them, is avoided in favor of the Formalism that dominates the Museum’s other departments.  A typical MoMA catalogue or display text today announces the measurements of a Bic Crystal pen as if we needed to know them but fails to mention that 14 million are sold around the world each day. 

Paola Antonelli, senior curator of design at the Museum would like to see this oversight addressed.  In an interview with Fast Company Magazine in 2007 she said “Right now, there’s a rather Manichaean view, as is if the commercial side were dirty, I completely disagree.  The commercial aspect of objects is something beautiful.”  This does not mean that museums should necessarily collect the Singing Bass for display and study as a cultural artifact, but it suggests that trying to look at a Post-it note the same way you would a Picasso is nonsensical.  Beauty in an art object can be seen in its form alone, but beauty in a designed object emerges from a combination of elements.  These include shape, color, and function, but also the decisions the designer made to prepare his creation for the commercial habitat into which all designs, for better or worse, are released. 

Articles that focus on the quantitative aspects of design can frequently be found in The Economist and in columns like Consumed by Rob Walker in the New York Times Magazine.  I am hopeful that quantitative analyses of designs will reach more, daily media and become a regular supplement to the thoughtful and sometimes poetic observations that design critics offer.  As we enter an age of greater awareness of how design impacts the environment and our health and we enjoy unprecedented access to information, I think the time is upon our results-driven society to take a closer look at the numbers.  This critic will try to encourage such a focus.  


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