Philosophical reflections on industrial design

Yesterday I had the good fortune, thanks to faculty members Mike McAllister and Tony Guido, to observe the Junior critiques of the University of the Arts Industrial Design program students. For their fall semester projects, Juniors were invited to think about how they could improve the lives of persons with disabilities who wanted better access to their kitchens. Working alone or in pairs, students presented their prototypes as well as the process of thinking, research, sketching, and testing that led them to this particular result. What was emphasized, not least, was the art of storytelling.

The goal of industrial designers, I gather, is to create new products that solve some kind of problem concerning how we use certain tools or interact with the world. Where most people see a world that is given to them and taken for granted, industrial designers see possibilities for how it can be bent, shaped, transmogrified, or transformed. In this case, the focus was on how product design could help address a problem in the daily lives of a particular group of people.

People who use wheelchairs face certain challenges with making food because most kitchens are designed for those whose capacities to reach high and over, turn easily in small spaces, pull with both hands, twist beyond 90 degrees, step up if necessary, and utilize other complex motor skills that are generally taken for granted. Would it be possible, then, to design a product that would, as it were, open up the kitchen–would open the kitchen up as a kitchen, revealing it as a friend rather than as an obstacle or impediment?

In lieu of analyzing any particular project, I would like to make some general points about what I learned overall. I was impressed, to begin with, by something so basic to industrial design that it may, for all I know, go unnoticed. The starting point of the industrial designer is with the not already existing: specifically, with what is missing with (the void in) already existing reality. The Judeo-Christian God creates the world ex nihilo (“from nothing”). The mystery for theologians is how something could come from nothing. By contrast, the Greeks believed that one could only create from something, i.e., with the use of pre-existing matter. We would do well to think of human creations in the latter sense. To create is to give a new form to some pre-existing material.

When you ask most people what kind of business they would open if they had the labor and resources, they tend to reply with some replication of the already existing. They speak of opening up coffee shops in an area of town that doesn’t have one or of designing a new line of linens despite the fact that linens–cheap and luxurious both–are everywhere. So, it would seem that most people conceive of ‘what’s missing’ in terms of the expansion or reiteration of sameness. They can conceive of doing nothing other than ‘upgrading’ existing reality.

It is refreshing, therefore, to be surrounded by creative individuals who seek to pose the philosophical question: what is new? What does it mean for a human creation to count as novel? And what would be involved in bringing the novel into reality?

I come now to a second point. Students at U Arts are encouraged to cultivate the virtue of presentness. In their conversations and interactions with those they seek to help, they try to observe closely, ask open-ended questions, look at their environments in unfamiliar ways, play around, and keep their attention squarely upon the needs of those they are working with.

The final point is that what distinguishes industrial designers from fine artists is that the former take seriously the demand to make something relevant. Relevance can be understood in very broad terms but at least it means that the new product is meant to be used, at some time or another, in such a way that it carries the possibility of making the life of some human beings more flourishing. A $20,000 pair of alligator skin boots will become a fetish, a totem, a thing to be gazed upon, not to be worn, but nothing else. And even though a Pollock painting might invite us to perceive the world differently or anew, it cannot help us to realize some fundamental way of being human. To speak of Homo faber is to speak of creative human’s active engagement with the environment. 

In short, philosophical considerations of the novel, the cultivation of the virtue of presentness, and a mindfulness for relevance all make industrial design into a worthwhile way of engaging with the environment.


I turn now to three quibbles. One was that it was not always easy to make out whether students were genuinely ‘alive to’ this project. By being ‘alive to…,’ in this context I mean keeping a close eye on what is missing and urgently needed Something can be missing but not urgently needed (hence, be irrelevant) or be urgently needed but not missing (hence, there’s no demand for creation). One wonders whether coming to a more resonant sense of the urgently needed might require a fuller consideration of the spiritual exercise of ‘what it is like to be…’

Second, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on ’empiricism’ (interviewing, testing, measuring, refining, etc.) but perhaps not enough on conceptual labor, the kind of thinking that can only be done deductively. The properties of bowls and frying pans rule out, simply in virtue of having these properties and these functions and not others, certain ways in which they can interact with other objects, hands, and so on. For this reason, it would be prudent to consider a range of ways in which an object–not a particular, empirical object but an object that falls under the general category of, say, frying pan–can and cannot be used. We are thinking, when our thinking goes well, about the range of possibilities for an object to be in virtue of its being this kind of object. As Tony Guido nicely put it, “Sometimes students are dragging [a narrow conception] reality into their products.” If one begins with a particular object, this might not only preclude one’s openness to designing something new and viable but also lead to considerable, perhaps intractable flaws in the design later on. But this kind of work, I submit, is philosophical before it is empirical, and its point is, so to say, to stave off later disaster.

Third, it wasn’t clear to me whether a number of students had managed to ask the right question. In “What Makes the Right Question Right? (II),” I write about specifications:

Getting the specifications right helps us to ‘set up’ an inquiry. I need to know, first of all, that I do not know what I am after (if I did know, why would I feel the need to inquire in the first place?), but (second) I also need to have some vague idea concerning what might count as being a good answer. Third, I need to have a good reason for inquiring, with this reason being that ‘I am alive to…’ or ‘I am fraught about…’ We return, as ever, to Meno’s paradox of inquiry.

Perhaps I can say a bit more about the ‘set-up.’ Negatively, I may have already ruled out certain answers that can’t satisfy and have held fast to these conclusions. So, I know that the right answer cannot be A or B or C (etc). But knowing that the wrong answer cannot be A or B or C should, in the case of a good inquiry, tell me something about my specifications: should help me to tighten my specifications so as to exclude answers like A, B, and C (etc.).

Positively, I can say that I have ‘some vague notion’ of what a right answer would be like. It has to be something like this, something with this shape or form or whatever.

Finally, I can say, especially when I am working with a good guide, that there is a certain ‘crystallization’ evident in the right question. “Yes,” we say in unison, “that is the right question. Let’s begin here.”

In sum, the three quibbles I raise are concerned with the ‘urgently needed’ aspect of design, the conceptual work in the design process, and the facility with which one learns to pose the right questions.

All and all, an exceptional learning experience for which I’m deeply grateful.