Great design, redefined: products should be good-looking and ethical

Not so long ago, beauty and usability were the main components of excellent design. Today, design critics and consumers save their best praise for goods that are "good," too.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor on

Not so long ago, excellent design was defined by its elegance and ease of use. But as information travels fast today, so too does news of a manufacturer's ethics, both in the context of being environmentally friendly and worker friendly, too. Or, sadly, a lack of one or the other.

So what does excellent design really mean now? Much, much more than surface loveliness or even usability.

A thoughtful piece by veteran design critic Alice Rawsthorn, which appeared in the International Herald Tribune on July 23 (and also published online by the New York Times), laid out concrete examples of projects that were either responsible or desirable, as well as the more rare combination of the two.

One embodiment of both good and good-looking design is The Barking Bathhouse, set to open on July 27 (see above for a playful rendering). Designed by the socially conscious design firm Something & Son, it's a hip community spa that's built in what was once a run-down bar in a run-down section of East London. The designers used recycled and energy-efficient materials, and chose the location to help revive a blighted neighborhood--and offer its citizens soothing massages and other services at discounted prices.

Another well-balanced design projects, according to Rawsthorn, are the Escale Numérique, or Digital Break, designed by Mathieu Lehanneur in Paris, a restful place with public Wi-Fi, which shares many of the same noble earth- and community-conscious goals as the Barking Bathhouse. Rawsthorn also pointed out the beautiful biodegradable Bioceta hair brushes by Italy's Acca Kappa, which are functional, necessary, eco-friendly, and nice to use, as a prime example of great design.

Rawsthorn then called out goody-goody design projects such as Samsung's recently released Galaxy Exhilarate smartphone, which is made from mostly recycled materials but is apparently boring to look at and to use, interface-wise. (That's Rawsthorn's opinion, and she's one of the world's foremost design authorities). Such a product has admirable ethical ambitions, but falls flat in terms of seducing buyers. What's the point, really, if it's not attractive?

She also discusses gorgeous goods that are not so gorgeous when taken in the context of their makers' ethics. Apple, the symbol of ultra-loveliness for so long now, has been falling short in the ethics department, as Rawsthorn pointed out. Besides the controversy surrounding the factory conditions endured by the company's Chinese subcontractors, there's been a more recent embarrassing episode in which Apple withdrew from the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or Epeat, evaluation system. And then joined again after consumers complained.

Even mighty Apple is having its design scrutinized on a grand scale by the old idiom, "pretty is as pretty does." The public, and not only design critics, is clearly redefining the idea of truly excellent design as something more than a surface or even experiential quality.

Image: copyright Something & Son, courtesy Create London

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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