What Is Good Design Now? A Conversation with Three Designers

March 27, 2009

photo by Swissmiss

Last night, I had the pleasure of sitting in on What’s Next For Design?, a VW sponsored panel discussion held at the New York Museum of Arts & Design. Moderated by Adam Gopnik, author and staff writer for the New Yorker, the panel featured three designers from three different disciplines: Pentagram partner, Paula Scher, architect, Ahmad Sarder-Afkhami, and furniture designer, Jonathan Adler.

The discussion began with Gopnik speaking briefly about his own relationship to design, its power, and his view of how design has always been “the primary impetus for innovation,” even in the realm of fine art. He then introduced each panelist, briefly discussing their work and engaged them in conversation. The atmosphere was informal and Gopnik did a wonderful job of moderating what shaped up to be a fairly lighthearted discussion.

His first question asked of the panel, what, if they can remember, was the first thing that made them notice design. Paula Scher recalled Alex Steinweiss’ album cover for South Pacific, while Jonathan Adler (who was absolutely hilarious) talked about a ceramic leopard and a ceramic cake owned by Mrs. Goldstein, his neighbor growing up in southern New Jersey. Ahmad Sarder-Afkhami discussed what he called “the permeability of sound” in his childhood home, in Iran.

South Pacific album cover by Alex Steinweiss. What Paula Scher recalls as the item that made her first notice design.

The discussion then moved to the design process, specifically, the rationale and logic each designer has when approaching a project. Adam set this question up by talking a bit about Paula’s recent design for The New York Philharmonic. It was interesting to hear her speak about the logic behind some of the design decisions. For instance, the brief called for a mark that needed to be legible regardless of language barriers, which is why Scher chose to do a circular lock-up. The mark itself, though it’s a wordmark and in English, communicates without ever having to be read.

Paula Scher’s design for The New York Philharmonic

In posing the question, Gopnik spoke of good design possessing a certain “lucidity” in that the style dictates the solution, to which Paula responded, “That’s what you’re supposed to do.” (Probably my favorite quote of the night. Can I get an AMEN?)

No discussion on contemporary design can be had without the recent Tropicana gaffe getting a mention. Gopnik used it as an example to ask the question, how does bad design happen. While Paula spoke specifically about the problems with the Tropicana redesign, Jonathan Adler summed it up succinctly. “Bad design is done by focus groups. . .The more idiosyncratic the design, the more a focus group would hate it.” Yet, often the most memorable designs are fully idiosyncratic. He spoke specifically of a banana vase he recently designed, a terrible idea in the eyes of his business associates, which proved to be a hit at a recent trade show.

Jonathan Adler’s banana vase. An example of idiosyncratic design being good design. Photo from apartmenttherapy.com

The final question, directed at Mr. Sarder-Afkhami, asked how an architect works through a recession. Although he has been fortunate enough to not have experienced a major drop-off in work, Ahmad has found himself thinking more about what is excessive and what “inherited programs” of living are no longer pertinent to the way we live. It’s a fascinating subject, which I’d love to hear more about.

When the floor opened up, I asked if the designers noticed that design has been getting more media coverage than ever, and how that affects the way they approach a project. The consensus is that it certainly has. “Every magazine has a design column,” said Paula Scher. It’s definitely true, but where does that leave us as designers? Moreover, how does this new transparency in design affect what is considered good design, now?

more coverage of this event over on Swissmiss