#39 Do designers make a contribution, really?
It’s Design Lobster #39 and we’re asking big questions about a designer’s sense of purpose. Plus, how the design of ships inspired the first cash register. Ka-ching. 💵
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Question: What contribution do designers actually make?
Above: If I Want to Explore a New Direction Professionally, it is Helpful to Try it Out for Myself First, 2007. A design in sugar by Bantjes.
This week I was listening to a podcast which touched on the work and mission of graphic designer Marian Bantjes. She uses calligraphic type, pattern and complexity to create breathtaking graphic art. She is interested in visual work that is initially puzzling or inaccessible so that it provokes a sense of curiosity and wonder in the viewer. In the piece above, spilt sugar is transformed into highly ornamental text - an an everyday commodity unexpectedly becoming beautiful, even profound.
…when I put visual work out there into the mass media, work that is interesting, unusual, intriguing, work that maybe opens up that sense of enquiry in the mind – that I’m seeding the imagination of the populace. And you just never know who is going to take something from that, and turn it into something else.
— Marian Bantjes
Designers of all stripes will have asked themselves at least once whether their work is truly valuable to the world. When the choices we are making are aesthetic or related to qualities that are difficult to measure, it can be hard to justify spending time on them. I think Bantjes provides a wonderful rebuttal to those feelings. By thinking of our work as one step in a chain that will in turn inspire and and change others, that investment of energy and thought suddenly feels entirely worthwhile.
Design takeaway: How could you provoke more of a sense of wonder in the work that you do?
💠Do watch Marian’s TED talk from 2010.
Object: Cash register
Above: a highly decorated 20th century brass cash register.
James Ritty was a saloonkeeper from Dayton, Ohio. Despite an apparently busy premises he seemed to always make a loss. He suspected, but could not prove, that his employees were helping themselves to money from the cash drawer. In despair, he took a steamboat trip to Europe and became interested in a mechanical device below deck that counted the revolutions of the ship’s propeller. He wondered if transactions could be counted mechanically in the same way, leaving a record of the day’s transactions and helping to eliminate fraud.
On his return to the USA, he and his brothers developed their cash register design. The initial idea looked more like a clock that counted transactions which an employee would punch in with metal keys. This record then became a paper roll that the keys punched holes into. The real innovation was when the total for a particular sale was made visible on the machine to the purchaser too, making the transaction fully public and making it much harder for employees to slip the odd note into their pocket undetected.
In the end, Ritty’s invention would end up being commercialised by John Patterson, who formed the National Cash Register Company in 1884 to aggressively market the new device across the nation. With more and more transactions now handled digitally, cash registers have become a rarer sight. Despite this, the idea of a incorruptible public ledger lives on in the form of blockchain.
Design takeaway: What effect would sharing more information publicly have on your design?
💸 Antique cash register YouTube is a world you probably never knew existed.
Quote: “Function is putting a piece of wood down and sitting on it. Performance is sitting on something that makes your back align correctly, and accommodates your movements. If it is done to a level of perfection, then it becomes an art form.”
– Richard Saul Wurman, architect, designer & founder of TED conference
I’m interested in the hierarchy Richard presents here. Increasing fit between a solution and particular problem elevates a design in his formulation. Then at a point, when this fit becomes perfect, the whole thing undergoes a step change and becomes art. It’s an intriguing idea, art as a kind of revelation of a perfectly solved problem.
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