A poetically designed object is more than simply our innate inclination towards its aesthetic qualities. Unbeknownst to the average user, with or without a design background, it is the emotional and philosophical engagement anchored in the design decisions that unconsciously make a poetically designed object visually appealing.
Poetry is a form of expression that uses sensory qualities to evoke meanings in addition, or in replacement of prosaic, semantic meaning (Poetry.org, 2005).
Design, as Kenya Hara expresses, refers to “the process of discovering problem shared by many people and trying to solve it” (Hara, 2007).
Poetic designing, therefore, can be seen as metaphorically reinterpreting familiar objects to initiate thought and raise questions about how we interact and respond to current social, cultural and political attitudes.
Three key examples of poetic design — Kaoru Mende’s Anniversary Matches, Tom Gerhardt’s Stone Mouse, and Yuki Ida’s Straw Straw, embody the poetic design decisions that stimulate contemplation. These everyday objects share common factors such as the return to natural materials, tapping into the unconscious realm of our minds, whilst satisfying our human needs that are contextually scripted, with a balance between discovery and efficiency.
Designing an object poetically taps into the deep connection between nature and human formed since the beginning of human civilisation. In the 21st Century, this connection is distanced as a result of technological substitution, covering a majority of objects and machinery for cost and time-efficiency, even to the most unconsidered, everyday objects.
Kaoru Mende’s Anniversary Matches responds to this absence of nature in modern society. By using twigs as the materiality in replacement of the mass-produced wooden stick, Mende is allowing the user to re-connect and engage with nature through touch. The removal of this mass-produced, simulated element allows a tactile, sensory interaction between the object and user, which in effect, stimulates this innate connection with the earth. The matches generate thought in the user as they make that connection of how matches generate fire; matches are made from wood; wood generates fire; wood is natural. While it sounds straightforward when written on paper, the Anniversary Matches plays on this familiarity to comment on how nature can relieve this unconscious mental suffocation and physical exhaustion caused by the technological abundance in the current society. Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki also makes a comment in “In Praise of Shadows” on feelings of warmth, calmness and repose that natural materials can evoke. (Tanizaki,1977). In this essay about Japanese aesthetics, he expresses how “Western paper turns away the light, while our [Japanese] paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently […] It gives off no sound when it is crumpled or folded, it is quiet and pliant to the touch as the leaf of a tree.” (Tanizaki, 1977) By personifying the paper, Tanizaki connotes the poetic affect that Japanese paper holds, commenting on how the natural materials are the core of this comfort and calmness it provides.
The importance of nature in poetic design is further supported by consciously making design decisions that generate an unconscious harmony between the object and user. This design value responds to our senses, “correcting and renewing our feelings about the essence of design, hidden within the fascinating environment of an object that is so overly familiar to us that we can no longer see it.” (Hara, 2007). Yuki Ida’s Straw Straw exemplifies the qualities of design that delves into the unconscious realm (Hara, 2007). Firstly, the play on words already establish a particular aesthetic metaphor as you notice that what is almost identical to the form of a straw we are familiar with, is actually made from real straw. Straw is the dried, hollow stalk of cereal plants. Like any plant, the stalk is the transporter of water and nutrients. (Muji Award, 2003). And thus, we associate straw as a carrier of hydration and good health. In this sense, by making this subtle connection between the two similar functions, the designer reinvents meaning by reconnecting with nature, which in effect, unconsciously stimulates visual appeal in the audience.
To design with a poetic approach is an extensive process of consideration, with one major aspect being to satisfy our human needs which are contextually scripted. The attitudes and perceptions toward social, cultural and political realms of society are affected by technological and design scripts. Kenya Hara highlights that the essence of design “lies in the process of discovering problems shared by many people and trying to solve it.” (Hara, 2007). Within the last thirty years, a shared problem was the need for efficiency (Max-Neef, 2007). Technological designs aided this need, such as the invention of the freezer with 95% of the UK population owning one by 1995 (Shove, 2010). It has generated this change in society that we must own a freezer in order to keep things on hold. The value of the food we eat is decreased as it has lost the element of immediacy. Whereas before a freezer became a compulsory home appliance, the food items are given more thought as to how it should be cooked within this amount of time before it hits the expiry date. The significance placed on efficiency as a human need in today’s fast-paced society has trumped the immense satisfaction that can be attained through emotive connections and thoughtful interactions with objects around you. Designer Tom Gerhardt sees this as a surfaced problem, embodying his response into the design of the “Stone Mouse”.
The dysfunctional form and materiality of the stone responds to the traditional speediness of computer mouses. By using a heavy, stationary piece of stone in paradox to the smooth, fast-paced mouse, it destructs the purpose of satisfying the need of efficiency today. However, by creating a visual paradox, it challenges and comments on this rash, thoughtless clicking of the mouse. The interaction between the user and object has altered dramatically, encouraging care and mindfulness of objects we are overly familiar with (Hara, 2007).
Whilst the stone mouse may seem inefficient to a certain degree, it is designed this way to enhance discovery, making the known ‘unknown’ (Hara, 2007). What seems to be two very contradictory core elements, part of the art of poetic designing is balancing this tension (Gaul, 2011). This balance between efficiency and discovery, allows space for thought by slowing down the interaction between the user and object. For example, Mende’s Anniversary Matches specifies on his packaging to use these matches on special occasions. By offering general instructions of use, Mende returns a sense of importance and value to the matches. By having a limited number of matches and the organically designed individuality of them, it encourages the user to contemplate and think carefully about questions, like, “which one should be used for this occasion?”, “is this occasion significant enough for this match?” This tension between efficiency and discovery poetically reinvents and elevates value and appreciation of everyday objects that we take for granted.
Whether we are aware of it or not, poetic design makes us think, re-evaluate what we know about our society and how we live in it. Designing with a poetic approach can be a powerful tool to unconsciously unlock mindfulness, challenge the conventional uses of objects and create a better connection between object and user in a non-aggressive way through deeply considered aesthetic and functional decisions. As Greek philosopher Socrates says, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
- Gaul, C. 2011, The Art of Everyday Things, pg.3 [of excerpt], Sydney, Australia
- Hara, K. 2007, Designing Design, Lars Müller, Switzerland
- Max-Neef, M. 1991, Development and Human Needs: Human Scale Development, The Apex Press, New York, pg. 197–199
- Tanizaki, J. 2001, In Praise Of Shadows, Vintage, London, UK, pg. 9-10
- Ida, Y. 2003, Straw Straw, Muji Award 03, viewed 6 December 2016, < http://www.muji.net/award/03/eng_nwpiece01.html >
- Mende, K. 2007, Anniversary Matches, If On A Winter’s Morning, viewed 6 December 2016, < www.ifonawintersmorning.com >
- Gerhardt, T. 2010, Stone Mouse, Tom Gerhardt, viewed 6 December 2016, < http://tomgerhardt.com/ >