Using design lessons from the past to shape the future

A two-page plate depicting the layers of the Earth and volcanic formations, from Kircher’sMundus subterraneus (1665)

A few days ago I was casually chatting with my colleagues about design related stuff (among all the other really interesting topics we usually chat about :P) and we ended up watching this video about a Design Q&A with Charles Eames.

While this interview took place in 1972, we found out that all the concepts expressed by Mr Eames are totally relevant and still applicable in today’s design work.

This is something that completely amazed me: How is it possible that people from the past were so smart and so productive considering all the restrictions and the lack of digital technology?

The answer is easy: although we might have evolved in the technology field and we might well have solved a lot of problems from the past, since the beginning human beings have always had the same attitude as we do today, aiming at solving problems and building stuff in order to make our lives easier. As the world famous modernist architect Le Corbusier once said:

“There is no such thing as primitive man; there are primitive resources. The idea is constant, in full sway from the beginning.”

What can we really learn from the past?

Humanity progresses because it builds on the knowledge of its predecessors, so here are few points that I think we can apply to our future design:

Restrictions are good. Let’s think about the elegance of the seventeenth-century books for a moment. As Colin Forbes noted “One of the reasons it looks so elegant is because of the restrictions: there was only one typeface available, there weren’t that many fonts, and virtually all you could do was play with sizes, italics, and so forth.” Restrictions can be considered as an advantage rather than an obstacle as they impel us to go deeper and make us consider the tough questions.

Do your research. Not having the Internet didn’t stop our ancestors conducting their research. Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, did a lot of manual research on the way the human body works - stealing and dissecting human cadavers - in order to get all the answers he needed for his paintings. We’re lucky enough not to have this problem anymore, which means that we have all the necessary tools to gather a better understanding of the user, their environment and the underlying technology driving their emotions.

Always be learning. “If you can design one thing, you can design everything” as Massimo Vignelli once said. Learning as many new techniques as possible, as well as having a good understanding of how other disciplines work, will help you adjust your approach to problem solving. If your only tool is a hammer, you’ll consider every problem to be a nail.

Communication is important. As Charles Eames put it, if you are designing a chair, you have to talk to the people who are going to build the chair, those who are going to buy the chair, and the ones who are going to maintain the chair. Similarly, in the tech environment, always make sure to communicate with the people who are going to build your design and those who are actually going to use it. Without clear communication, the chair cannot be built properly.

Conclusion

Nowadays we have better technology and, in the specific case of carwow’s product, we design the service that delivers the experience rather than designing for a physical product. The aim however, is always the same: creating simple and beautiful products which are usable, aesthetically pleasing and most importantly, crafted for humans.


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