Sunday, November 30, 2008

Selfless for Oneself


A son of my mother’s friend contacted me about a week ago. RISD was his dream school and his question for me was regarding his application essay topic. As if it were the only topic one could think of for an application essay, his topic had been very similar with mine; the cause of his ambition and his future goals with a degree from RISD. It reminded me of the time I wrote my RISD essay. What had I written about? Piecing scattered memories together, I faintly remembered. It was something about my goals to differentiate and accentuate the Asian aesthetics from that of the western to broaden the world’s cultural palette. Cheesy as it is, I wondered how I thought about that topic now, especially after having gone through two and a half years of RISD and all its liberal arts greatness. Inspired by this thought is my response.

My Response:

Since the mid 20th century onwards, the world has experienced technology advancements at its maximum speed. Newer technologies allowed affordable goods and services to a wider demographic. The airports in the UK started reaching its full capacity as its passengers grew from 4 million in 1954 to what would be 228 million by the year 2005. As there is no such thing as a ‘happy-ending’ in reality, there were consequences. To name a few are pollution, importation of germs, and national security threats. Similarly, in the mid 19th century was the development of the sewer systems. In 1851, at the England’s Crystal Palace, exhibited and open for use to the public at a price of a penny were the world’s first flush toilets. It was revolutionary; a simple odorless way of discharging human waste. This led to a boom in usage of a vital resource; water. Yet again, consequences such as water contamination and water shortage were brought onto the table. Despite having solved some problems such as the spread of diseases and the inconvenience of disposing human waste, the solution had brought upon new problems. How are we presently dealing, if at all, with such problems? Are there any examples we can look towards? How can industrial design be a part of a solution and not a cause?

Objects are often studied in depth by anthropologists in the process of understanding a certain social group’s mindset. Meanings are imposed onto an object by both the user and the creator. Often times, these objects are used as a reference point to which one’s social acceptance and power are measured. In a westernized culture we know our combo meals from our course meals and dress pants from sweat pants. Identity is built upon one’s consumerist behavior and both the marketers and advertising agencies are very aware of this nature. The westernized society, viewing from the outside, has plainly created badges to show one’s power; a shirt with an alligator embroidered being more superior than the one with an eagle embroidered. Through extensive marketing and product placements wherever possible, these badges come as a lifestyle and not just a brand. Advertising industries impose on the western culture the idea that one has to both look like an elite and quack like an elite to be an elite. Such an ideal can be blamed for the $12.8 billion debt the U.S. consumers newly accumulated in the months of November and December just last year.

Left: Campaign by Ralph Lauren with the product placed in a setting that is both desirable and marketable. Right: Campaign by Brooks Brothers showcasing the 'type' of people who wear their clothing.

So as consumers pour $700 million in candle purchases and send $20 billion worth of gifts and cards to one another through the U.S. Postal Services, other nations are growing economically and starting to feel the desire to join in on the candle burning, badge earning, consumerist role play. Perhaps the current economic downfall is the result of both the outrageous spending culture of the western culture and the ever so growing consumerist culture of China – home to 1.3 billion. An apparent example is the booming market in the window industry in the Republic of Korea. Old styled housing and newly built apartments are utilizing windows that are an infusion of new technology with an aesthetic of the western culture. The rapid growth in sales of none traditional objects such as beds, window curtains, and shower curtains, have also started in the mid 20th century. Such phenomenon is a clear representation of the culture taking the western consumerist culture as its role model.

Left: retail space in a Korean Shopping Center of Who.A.U, a South Korean clothing brand. Right: retail space of American Eagle, an American brand.

The problem isn’t exactly what the consumer use but how many consumers use it. ‘in moderation’ is something we hear in almost everywhere. There definitely is a power in number and that power is never guaranteed to be spent for a good cause. Globalization has narrowed the scope of appreciated aesthetics and created a universal goal built on consumerist ideals. Too much of the world’s population have started to value much of the similar – none life elemental – resources and such scenario is undoubtedly going to bring consequences in equal or larger scale as that of the cause.

Aesthetics may be scoffed at by many industrial designers and is often left as a job for the ‘product designers’. But have they dismissed aesthetics as part of a function as well? Is coloring a medical device blue the only visual solution to calm a panicked patient? Aesthetics as a function can serve so much more than to help people create self-identity. It can create communal identity, which can eventually enrich the cultural palette and prevent everyone sprinting for the same resources, which otherwise would lead to depletion. It is time that designers take ancient designs as role models in their use of local materials and respect for communal identity.

Left: newly replaced french styled window in South Korea. Right: Korean traditional style frosted glass slide window.