It’s the mantra of post-modernism: we don't need new forms, because they are all there and all we can do is rearrange them. The only things that really matter are the concept – the idea behind the form – and the context – the environment on which the form should have its effect.
There are so many images, so many objects, things, designs, products, messages, that people are feeling stuffed, overloaded, claustrophobic. Our eyes get tired, our minds get weary. There are so many signs – the world has become a text and we are walking through it, reading, trying to keep up with the vast amount of messages that are tossed our way. We are asking ourselves: what is the story behind all these messages, what does this text try to say to us? But it seems that all these objects and products are as many loose words without grammatical structure. We can read each word for itself, each isolated object has a meaning, or a function, for itself. But what do all these messages, all these words add up to? How are they connected? What meanings lie hidden behind the forms?
For a long time in design, the meaning of a product was synonymous with its function. It is from this line of thought that a design ideology took its name: functionalism. But products, utensils, have more than one purpose. They are junctions in a process that is to a great extent invisible. Products have a function – but do they have a meaning also? The functionalistic answer to this question would be that the two coincide: The function is the meaning of the product. But what about this old example from the early days of industrial design: The Classicist Steam Engine. How functional are the cast-iron Corinthian columns and entablature round this steam engine from the eighteen sixties? The direct usefulness of such elaborate decoration is questionable. But it definitely carries a meaning. These Greek columns tell us something about the importance of the machine: it is the heart of a workplace unknown to the world before – the holy shrine of the industrial age. It is a temple of a new era, the centre of an almost religious cult of progress that demands total commitment and belief from everybody, from the boss to the heater. Looking at the richly decorated icons of the industrial revolution in this manner, you see more than rational production methods – you see a morality, gracefully clad in cast-iron.
This example shows the degree to which, in addition to functional and aesthetic notions, ethical concepts can play a role in design. These concepts are part of the 'invisible program' behind the design. Designers have to ask themselves how their products will be used, and in which contexts, because they pre-program the use and the meaning of the product into the design. In this phase of the design process, ethical and moral notions raise their heads, because 'the right use' is not only a question of objective analysis (whatever the ergonomists may say); 'right', to a large extent, is 'that which is considered socially and morally desirable'. We have come to realize that the work of a designer consists of more than functional and formal analysis, of rational argumentation towards a fixed goal, the product. We see that the meaning of a product can extend far beyond its direct function.
This is a relatively recent insight. In design, for a long time, the meaning of an object has been synonymous with its function. To explain how simplistic this narrowly functionalistic design method is, I refer to a story by Lucius Burckhardt, a sociologist and chairman of the Deutsche Werkbund – one of the organizations that invented Functionalism. Burckhardt recounts it in a very important book from 1982, called Design ist Unsichtbar ('Design is invisible'): Cutting onions costs time and makes your hands smell. So the onion cutter was designed. The problem of the onion cutter is that although you gain five minutes and keep clean hands, it will cost you ten minutes to dismantle, clean and rebuild the machine, before you can use it again, a process which will result in smelly hands. Now the traditional designers' approach to this dilemma would be to define the problem as: 'the cleaning of the onion cutter'. And the traditional answer to the problem would be: the onioncuttercleaningmachine. (etcetera, ad infinitum). According to Burckhardt, the designer makes the mistake of categorizing the world in terms of objects instead of actions. In other words: in traditional designers' practice a discrete problem is directly translated into a discrete product. Another scholar, and designer, Alexander Manu, has this to say about the same mistake: