By Fraser Scott (for designindustry Limited)

Published in the Christchurch Press, 19 October 2005.


If one wishes to delve into the punishingly contentious, daring to define the difference between design and art is a good starting point.

Some would say that art is inherently self-focused, whereas design is all about others. Others might venture that art is about emotional response, whereas design is about practical implementation. Each of these contrasts has some truth to it, but the dividing line is rather more blurred than they would suggest.

So instead, in a feat of uncharacteristic bravado, we have determined that the primary delineation between art and design is in terms of function: art is about expression, design is about function. Good design is functional. If it doesn't do the job intended, and do it well, it is not well-designed. This is designindustry's third design quality principle.

Examples of strong functional design might include the Dyson vacuum cleaner, Mission speakers, the Porsche Boxster and the meat pie. Yes, that's right, the meat pie.

In the middle ages casseroles were often cooked in an inedible pastry shell that served both as storage container and serving vessel. Then some bright spark whose name has tragically been lost to us came up with the very clever idea of making the outer shell edible. The result was a portable casserole with a carbohydrate boost in the form of a pastry coffyn, as they were first known. The first cookbook to record a recipe for these new delicacies, in 1596, contains the following recipe for pastry:

"Take fyne floure and a cursey of fayre water and a dysche of swete butter and a lyttel saffron, and the yolckes of two egges and make it thynne and as tender as ye maye."

It just goes to show what a fyne and swete pie one can make if one takes a lyttel care.

The meat pie, for all its detractors, is as much a marvel of functional gastronomical design as its stablemates the sandwich and the pizza. Functional design need not be glamorous or beautiful, it just needs to do what it says it will do.

Of course, for every example of functional design, our lives are plagued by dozens of examples of the dysfunctional, or at least the inadequately functional.

Think of the bold claims made by tooth whitening products, fake tan, exercise machines, no-scrub cleaners, anti-wrinkle creams or anything with the word miracle in the title. And then think of those big-ticket items you've saved up to buy only to find that they didn't quite measure up to expectations.

It doesn't matter how good the product looks, how fashionable its packaging or colour scheme is, or how much the design elite swoon over it: if it doesn't do the job properly, it is not a good design.

Let's return to the art/design debate for a moment. Often what is heralded as great design, is actually art. The breathtaking chair that impresses your houseguest, but savages their posterior if they choose to sit in it, may well be fine art, but it is functionally deficient design. Likewise the gorgeous vase that topples over when filled with flowers or the designer platform shoes that a tightrope walker couldn't balance on. Art posing as design fails the functionality test.

And this highlights one of the core issues struck by companies that invest heavily in design without a real understanding of what it is.

They will often bring out a new range of heated towel rails or MP3 players or office furniture that has been newly designed by a designer. Said product range will have new clean lines, provocative colours and an overall look that is radical and edgy. Unfortunately the new designer range is now prone to breakages at stress points and key features of the old range have been sacrificed to make way for the new design innovations.

Art 1, design 0.

This is not to say that aesthetics have no place in design. Form (the look and feel of something) works at an emotional level and, well-executed, connects with the end-user at a deep and psychological level. Form should also suggest what to do with the object in question.

SUVs haven't sold so well over the past few years because they assist us with our frequent need to traverse off-road suburban obstacles; rather, the way they look makes us feel rugged, powerful, in control. A recent Cornell University study even goes so far as to link four-wheel drive ownership with male insecurity about masculinity. As so few of us can afford to drive SUVs any more, the point is perhaps best considered moot.

The real problems arise when form overrides function and how it looks becomes more of a development focus than how it works. In this case, design is the loser at the end of the day.

The issue is well illustrated by the well known maxim build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Any marketer will tell you this is far from true, but the clich does pose a simple request to the product developer: if you come up with a product that effectively solves this basic problem, we will buy it.

This is the essence of the principle of functionality: solve the problem, get the job done, catch the mouse. Don't spend your entire design budget focusing on the colour of the trap.