Sometime when I meet with a designer, or a designer-to-be, it boggles my mind what views they have. Sometimes it is because their approach to design is something great, something that is just out there and manages to make an impact, be whatever sort of design they do. Other times it is because the person just, to be completely and utterly blunt, fuck the core idea of the very basic idea of design.
I met a person who is attending a social design contest. Social design at its core is simply the approach the designer has during the process, where he is aware of his responsibilities to the society at large. The design may have potential to change the society to some extent, but the change is dependent on the success of the product. Just like any other highly used terms within industries, social design has a number of variations of itself, but this seems to be the basic idea behind all the explanations.
Well, what sort of design was this person to toss into the competition? A personal air filter for the population of highly polluted cities. Now, you most likely know that there’s a lot of this sort of stuff already. I’m sure we all know the image of an Asian person with a mask on his face. This designer had a great idea how to make things better; the person air filter would sit on the user’s chest from a scarf or something, filter the polluted air and push the clean air to the user to inhale.
The problem is with this thing is that this person had nothing else after a week worth of designing. Just that.
A normal person would start asking questions about the product. First would be How does it work? and How much power would it use? These are valid questions which this person had no real answers. The research this designer had done consisted of two pieces of arguments based on existing technologies.
The first technology that was behind the two arguments is the Air-Purifier Bike, which would filter the air as the cyclist moves. A person who has ever cycled realises the first problem here; adapting this technology is essentially impossible. The air that is being filtered through the bicycle’s air filter system is not actively moved through the system. Rather, the air move through the system because the cyclist moves onwards. It’s like putting a pearl into a thread and moving the pearl through the thread end to end. It’s not the thread that moves. The same applies here. In order for the air to move through the small personal filter on the user’s chest would require the user to move fast enough to encourage circulation through the system.
The problem with the Air-Purifier bike is that it is a concept, and concepts are not proofs that the idea works.
The second technology was the same used in any filtered mask. Respirators. The problem here again is the circulation of the air. With most respirators the air is moved through the filter with the user’s respiration. It’s a passive system, where there is no bells and whistles to screw how things work. Because it is the user’s respiration that moves the air, the personal air filter can’t adapt this without additional tubes, hoses or masks because it would defeat the overall function of the design.
These are the only two things this designer had ‘researched.’ I can’t call it properly research as both points are extremely apparent and anyone trying to come up with a proper personal air filter would push aside first.
Perhaps the main problem in this situation is that the person here in question doesn’t seem to think that it is the designers’ duty to design how their product work. Just how the look. With this person’s words, a designer is not an engineer and doesn’t need to concern oneself with the function, that this isn’t product design but social design.
I’ll skip all the personal insults, but I have to ask If this isn’t product design, then why are you holding a number of initial drawings for a product?
This sort of mindset is toxic. We, as designers, have a responsibility towards the consumers. Before and after the product is put into use, how the product could live on anywhere.
Let’s assume that the personal air filter this person was putting on paper would be made, that it would work just as intended. The first problem here is the filter system needs to be miniaturised to a large extent to properly work. Then, you need sort of device to suck air in and blow it out, a fan of sorts. Small fans may work, but in order to keep the filtered air mixing with the polluted air too soon, the fan needs to be strong enough to have a strong air flow with a well directing nozzle. The power this fan then would need wouldn’t fit into the casing in order not to be too heavy or too noisy, so we would need to have a revolutionising new technology in both material and battery technology. Then we have the problem with the filter. A device this small, especially for filtering polluted air, would need to have a lot of spare filters the user would need to carry with him. That poses two new problems; the user needs to change the filter often and carry with him, and then the issue with discarded filters. Could these filters be recycled or are they of nature friendly biomaterials?
If all these points would be successfully achieved, then what would be the price of the product be? It would be a very high-tech device in its simplicity and would cost a lot. This here is what would break the camel’s back. It would be a very costly product for few to buy, and would do its job worse than those white masks. Expensive does not equal high quality, a thing the designer actually seemed to completely disagree with. Well, I hope we won’t be talking about cars with this person. The lack of research and logical thinking this person lacked as a designer doesn’t tell a pretty tale. If this is the mindset of upcoming designers, we can say goodbye to good, customer driven design in our products. Perhaps this would do good to proper craftsmen, who would then be able to meet with the wants and needs of the society at large.
The problem this person was trying to solve, in all actuality, was that the white masks didn’t look nice. Think about that for a moment.
The problem of air pollution in major cities is something that can’t be solved with a simple personal air filter. The only real way would be to turn your attention to the actual problem which would be the objects that pollute air. Designing these objects, be it cars or factories, so that they would lessen the pollution in some manner would be one of the answers. Removing the pollution would be ideal, but that is almost impossible at this moment in time. Designing such thing would be difficult and would require a lot of research, hard work and trials and errors.
But if the person with the drawings for the personal air filter is any indication, the people who have a need for all the above mentioned things in their every day work don’t want to do any of the three. It would seem that even that lack of common sense is abundant. Perhaps it is true that common sense has become so rare that it is a super power.
The customer can fight this by supporting the products that he sees the most fitting for himself in every regard. Voting with your wallet still hits hardest, and no industry can deny the impact an aware customer can have.