Poetic Design and Energy in the Everyday

The term design encompasses a spectrum of meaning. Sweep your eyes across the room and you will see there is a diversity of objects, mediums and systems, all of which, it could be argued, have some degree of ‘design’. One visionary definition of the term, is Kenya Hara’s ‘design’ which has innate energy and thus user interactivity. Design is “the energetic acknowledgement of our own living world through the making of things and through communication” (Hara 2007) but, this vision conflicts with the current image of design which values commercialisation and mass production, rather than designs which ‘energetically’ narrate and reflect on meaning, otherwise hidden.

For consumer culture and the fastening lifestyles of the modern world, there is a place for this mass manufacture and uniformity, however within this context, I would assert that there is an even greater need for considered design. There is a need for poetry in this monotone of consumer products. “We need allies in inhabitation” (Tanizaki 1977). “Fortunately, we have at hand many allies, if only we call on them”. We need to call on their ‘energy’; through poetic design. The term ‘Poïesis’ encapsulates this ideal, in that “Poïetic work reconciles thought with matter and time, and person with the world”(Jansen 2016).

This paper aims to assert that products can and should be designed with poetic consideration, to thoughtfully reconnect and reconcile us with our experiences. It demonstrates the potential of this type of design, through exploring existing ‘Poetic’ designs, and finally, it discusses that poetic design exists on the cusp of Industry and Artistry.

Within literature, Poetic Devices range from metaphor, narrative, simile, allegory, pun, irony, humour, cultural reference, literary reference, material culture reference, to exoticism. Within design too, these different methods and ideas can be useful tools in translating ideas and emotions, but instead between objects and their users. Each of the three objects examined below, explore design poetry differently; through different poetic techniques. The commonality between them is their simplicity and mindful communication. In Poetic Design, one must “Consider the thing to be communicated” (Erard 2015), and through one or multiple poetic techniques, each object has a unique initial affect on the user, and then a deeper philosophical resonance.

[Straw Straw] thoughtfulness through materials and purpose

Straw Straw, for example, is literally an instance of poetry because it is a pun. Like all objects when considered, Straw Straw has a narrative, but one that is soft and suggestive of its natural material selection. Unlike literary puns which often result in a grating wittiness, the poetry of Straw Straw is in the quiet combination of pun and narrative. The object has an affect of subtle cleverness and beauty in its simplicity. On a deeper lever, it is ecologically sensible and probes users to question the use of plastics for single use tasks, unlike the decomposability and therefore sensibility of the Straw Straw. It builds a character for the object as each individual product is unique and ephemeral. The straw is an object common to commercial food and drink culture and Straw Straw reconsiders these norms of this object, challenging its material, to create a considered and poetic object. It demonstrates how objects can be deconstructed to find novel, but also elegant and functionally effective solutions to replace mundane existing products.

Similarly to Straw Straw which exists in a context where plastics and mass manufactured goods overwhelm meaning driven designs, other objects suffocate in the world’s increasing need for technological ‘innovation’ and repetitious aesthetics. Poetic design calls on an object to surpass these superficial improvements and be something more deeply conscious of its purpose — whether that be a better reflection of what it truly is, (like Straw Straw) through metaphor, or a statement of what it is not, to probe a new user interaction and consideration. The latter approach to poetic design, is articulated by Kenya Hara, in the term ‘Exformation’, where “Producing something new from scratch is creative, but making the known unknown is also an act of creation” (Hara 2007). An object can be poetic, in creating something unordinary to change the user’s reaction or interaction.

[Stone Mouse] an estranged cousin

Stone Mouse exists “In a myopia of technological substitutions”(Verganti 2009) and does so very poetically. Similarly to Straw Straw it uses unique natural materials, however unlike the straw, the mouse has a different affect through a different poetic idea and technique. Stone Mouse is an example of poetic exoticism as it draws the object into a different and unusual context. As a natural material the stone is soft and subtle, but it is nevertheless striking, and therefore fits this poetic technique. It is somewhat incomparable to its cousin mice because it is so poetic and estranged, aesthetically but not technologically. The mouse still functions as a computer mouse but its uniqueness is in its communication. Stone Mouse is able to ““communicate…by “making understood how little we know”” and has an initial affect of confusion. Similar to Straw Straw, it eventually draws the user back to an interaction with natural materials. The stone however has a sense of ambiguity and simultaneously comfort and security with its texture and palm-filling shape.

Stone Mouse is a reflection of the poetic concept of Exformation, where a stone is now a computer mouse. “Metaphor designers create these pseudo-mistakes deliberately” (Erard 2015) as it allows people to have a new engagement with an object that is often so narrowly defined in shape and material. It is instead, cool and comfortable but sturdy and dependable. It is a designed object that is not just ‘useful’ but is also intrinsically meaningful, philosophically.

[Anniversary Matches] usefulness and meaningfulness

This notion of usefulness and meaningfulness is encapsulated in other designs too, especially the Anniversary Matches by Kaoru Mende. In a practical sense and communicated by the packaging of the product, the matches fulfil the same use as traditional match sticks — their red heads can be ignited and their timber stick will eventually burn and disintegrate. But unlike traditional matches, these tell the narrative of the match object in a way unprecedented, through emphasising the story of their materials.

Similar to the other two case studies a beauty and simplicity through natural materials is again echoed in Anniversary Matches. In Anniversary Matches, this natural material is the key poetic feature that tells the story of the stick. Their individuality is highlighted because of the contrast they have to regular uniform matches, and each match is given character and uniqueness. The match’s common restrictions are all removed and it transcends to a space in which people can question its story. Like Stone Mouse, it uses this poetic process of Exformation (Hara 2007). It makes someone realise “they’ve only been looking at one side of a thing” (Erard 2015) and Mende intentionally emphasises the true nature — another side — to the ‘stick’. Anniversary Matches conflict with the norms of matches through their form — not their material — and this has an affect of contemplation and cleverness. Where each individual object is given a character it’s role is elevated and the match becomes less disposable. It is precious which is a potential reason the matches have been targeted at specifically ‘Anniversaries’ and ‘special’ occasions.

The above objects create a precedent for us to re-imagine everyday designed objects in ways that thoughtfully reconnect us with our experiences. “The talent of the designer is to reexamine these daily surroundings at any time, with a fresh eye, as if they were as yet unknown” (Hara 2007). This practice can be achieved through many different poetic approaches, as is evident in the multiple metaphors, puns, exoticism and narratives of the Straw Straw, Stone Mouse, and Anniversary Matches. These examples of ‘fresh eye’ approaches support the diverse potential of poetic design. In a world narrowly perceived through technology and manufacturing, “the future lies in mustering all our energy to design imaginative but viable alternatives.” (Max-Neef 1992)

A final point, is a clarification of Poetic Design’s placement as ‘design’, rather than ‘art’ where many poetic designs almost exist without function or efficiency. Indeed “The Art of Everyday things” (Gaul 2010) is at first an intriguing choice of words, as Hara’s definition in Designing Design contrasts art to design; instead art is self expression and art for art’s sake. The answer lies in the example of Anniversary Matches. The materials used for each match make each object unique and a product with its own character. Despite this ‘self expression’ and art — like quality, the matches remain a powerful statement, but also a functional object. They illuminate that poetic design exists on the cusp of Industry and Artistry. “Designers are in a unique position to create moments of mindfulness in everyday life by designing objects that pose questions and encourage us to be aware of the world in different ways”. Poetic Design becomes an elegant and playful integration and balance between methods and philosophies from art and poetry, into design practice.

  • Hara, K. 2007, Ex-Formation, Lars Muller Publishers, pp. 370–377
  • Tanizaki, J. 1977, In Praise of Shadows, Leete’s Island Books, USA
  • Erard, M. 2015, See Through Words, aeon, accessed 6 December 2016, <https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-build-a-metaphor-to-change-people-s-minds>
  • Verganti, Roberto. Design-Driven Innovation. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press, 2009. Technology Epiphanies
  • Real-Life Economics: Understanding Wealth Creation, ed. Paul Ekins & Manfred Max-Neef, Routledge, London, 1992, pp. 197–213
  • Gaul, C. 2010, The Art of Everyday Things: Creating moments of mindfulness in everyday life, Honours thesis, University of Technology, Sydney