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Better-Than-It-Has-to-Be Design

The clever design thinking behind everyday objects is often invisible but invariably makes our lives better. How can we apply that thinking more broadly? Introduction by Alice Twemlow.

The words "good" and "design" share a complicated history. Since the Museum of Modern Art's "Good Design" exhibitions and initiatives of the early 1950s, the two words have often been used to promote the values, philosophy, and aesthetic associated with modernism-a movement that can be roughly described as endorsing pared-down functionality and frowning upon extraneous ornament.For Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., the director of MoMA's industrial-design department and the instigator of those exhibitions, goodness in design was an objective quality that manufacturers could be trained to produce and consumers could be trained to recognize. To help consumers to identify good design once they were beyond the museum's clean white walls, MoMA and the exhibitions' co-sponsor, the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, created an orange-and-black Good Design tag that was attached to objects that were deemed to possess this quality: Eames chairs, Nelson clocks, Noguchi coffee tables, and other objects in the store that clearly expressed their purpose, structure, and materials as well as fulfilling, as Kaufmann put it, "the practical needs of modern life."The problem is that "good design" didn't look much beyond the object itself. An AK-47 rifle, for example, makes use of sound and appropriate materials and it demonstrates other criteria of good design, such as solid workmanship, efficiency, and suitability of purpose-the gun was designed so that nothing, from sand to ice, could get in and prevent it from firing. Plus, its robust and "honest" appearance is pleasing. For many, the AK-47 is a classic in the annals of good design (it also happens to be most popular firearm in the world). But the question then is: good for what and for whom?There are other ways of looking at design that seem more relevant to the challenges confronting 21st-century society. In the face of catastrophes such as global warming, good design as a cause in itself appears less important than the application of design and design-based thinking to good causes. In recent years, there has been a groundswell of design initiatives with an altruistic mission at their core, in which design is not just good, but good for something: Architecture for Humanity is rallying designers around projects aimed at alleviating a range of humanitarian crises; Worldchanging is sharing tools and approaches to solving global problems; and "Design for the Other 90%," an exhibition at New York's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, is showcasing attempts by designers to increase access to food and water, energy, education, health care, revenue-generating activities, and affordable transportation.These enterprises are noble and necessary. But as the examples of design on these pages demonstrate, goodness in design also operates at the more mundane level of improving the day-to-day existence of regular human beings. It need not create dramatic resolutions to global crises. Rather, it can often be small and quiet, but cumulatively powerful, a response to the anticipated everyday needs of people who wish to communicate, travel, learn, and flourish with efficiency and grace.
For many, the AK-47 is a classic in the annals of good design. But good for what and for whom?
Sometimes the goodness of design is measured by the very fact that it isn't noticed at all. When you find your way to your destination without mishap, for example, you rarely stop to consider how and why that happened. In fact, behind that journey lies the thoughtful design of specific fonts, signage, a house-numbering system, a road surface, tire treads, perhaps a map or a GPS device. The often-anonymous designers of these everyday things seem compelled by an internal calling to enrich someone else's day, even if only for a fleeting moment. They are probably not very well rewarded for their work-in fact, they may have had to buck the system to get some small improvement implemented.But good invites you to notice and celebrate the seemingly ordinary moments in your day that become extraordinary when you appreciate the extent to which they have been thought through on your behalf-a selection of pieces that might be classified as better-than-it-has-to-be design.

See design solutions to the following problems:

How Do We Know What's Up?
How Do We Make Our Mark?
How Do We Understand Each Other?
How Do We Work with the Machines?
How Do We Stay Safe?
How Do We Not Trash the Place?

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