MB Circus: Moving Design out of Gift Shop, Art out of Gallery

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Writer Regine Debatty (pictured above, at left) tapped a key on her fluorescent pink laptop computer and the screens of the Mediabistro Circus were filled with the image of a metallic pod creature, its body an inverted teardrop of ribbed aluminum propped upon a trio of spindly legs. Design fans in the crowd immediately recognized the object as the iconic Juicy Salif citrus squeezer designed by Philippe Starck for Alessi and yours, gift-boxed, for approximately $75 ($200 for the limited edition gold version). Debatty asked the audience, “Have you ever tried to use Philippe Starck’s juicer?”

While Starck has defended his creation, which he says he designed to get people talking rather than effectively eviscerating lemons, he more recently declared that design in general “is absolutely void of usefulness,” a claim that was addressed in different ways by the second two speakers in yesterday’s Circus session on user experience design: Debatty of we-make-money-not-art.com and Tjeerd Hoek (above, at right), executive creative director of frog design and a veteran of Microsoft.

In a talk that Circus host Manoush Zomorodi called “the trippiest presentation of the last few days…that only someone with a charming French accent could pull off,” Debatty clicked from a youtube video of the nonsense machines of Nobumichi Tosa to Toshio Iwai’s Tenori-On electronic music player for Yamaha to the shiny, happy, and ultra-slick world of Takashi Murakami, who she compared to Marcel Duchamp in reverse, “bringing artistic experience out of the gallery.”

But Debatty really piqued the interest of the tech-heavy crowd when she discussed the trend of critical design, showing the bio-electronic works of British designer/artists Dunne and Raby. Debatty focused on the duo’s 2004 project for the London Science Museum in which they envisioned a world fueled by meat-eating machines that used small animals as a novel energy source and designed products that would help humans come to terms with sacrificing cute and cuddly creatures to keep the lights on. One deadpan book created for the exhibition features a blood red cover and the subtitle “Avoiding emotional attachment to animals purchased for use as energy.” Oddly enough, Debatty’s images of a slug-eating robot served as a kind of palette cleanser, highlighting the importance of approaching any design task with an open mind.

Hoek of frog design steered the session back to broad themes, noting that while frog was originally oriented toward industrial design and is behind a dizzying array of objects, the company is increasingly involved in software-related projects. “At the heart of things, what we design are tools…that are useful, usable, and desirable,” said Hoek. “Every useful tool for people is interactive, but some are more interactive than others.” Echoing Google’s Jon Wiley, Hoek noted that design is “becoming more natural, emotional, physical, and touchable,” factors that make listening to what people have to say about their experiences with products more important than ever before.

Like Shiv Singh, who highlighted a convergent world in which the website of the Hindustan Times bears a striking resemblance to that of The New York Times, Hoek observed (with a nod to Steve Jobs) that, “the system is becoming the product.” Because systems are designed in pieces, it can be easy to focus on perfecting specific elements and lose sight of the overall picture. “When solving for specific tasks, don’t forget what it’s for,” advised Hoek, who noted that the company is now seeking designers with “different skill sets, who can choreograph dynamic experiences” like that of the iPhone. “Sometimes you quickly forget that you can do something original and beautiful.”