Design For Life

Update: I don’t think the BBC link I provided will work outside of the UK. Fortunately, someone has uploaded the first episode to Vimeo.

I’m not a huge fan of reality television, but I really enjoyed Design for Life on Monday. Not all of Phillipe Starck’s work appeals to me, but after watching him set challenges for 12 designers, I have a new appreciation for the philosophy behind what he does.

My favorite part of the program was Starck’s criticism of one of the designers use of a bicycle as a ‘sustainable’ object. The problem wasn’t the bike, but the cost of the bike (€90) and what that implied about how it was manufactured and who did the actual work. “It’s made by slaves,” Starck said to the bewildered designer.

While I didn’t entirely disagree with Starck, his statement did set off alarm bells. Starck can afford to spend €1000+ on a bicycle. Most of the world can’t. A Phillipe Starck creation is usually much more expensive than a comparable item. Most people can’t spend $90 on a citrus juicer.

I’m not defending the exploitation of workers in developing countries, but part of me wonders if Starck’s horror at that €90 bicycle wasn’t driven by something other than concern for those workers. Starck seems to have an fairly unrealistic idea of the way most of the world lives. The very idea of people living in a world without the benefit of elegant design seems to horrify him. And perhaps it is horrific, but if it is, shouldn’t we be trying to make good design affordable?

I’m reserving judgment, though. I’d love for Starck to surprise me and prove that beautiful design doesn’t have to come with a staggering price tag.

15 thoughts on “Design For Life

  1. Design for life is one of the most thought provoking and interesting programmes I have seen recently and the first episode bodes well for future ones.
    Although Phillipe Starck is probably very wealthy and can afford to buy high price items this should not detract from his philosophy and values on manufacturing processes.
    I would have liked to hear more from the participants on the choices made in their first task.The participant who chose tampons and condoms for the gender category wasn’t shown giving the explanation for her choice.Phillipe Starck talked about the transfer of qualities…had she mentioned these herself? If not I would have thought this would have been the focus of his criticism as lazy and an obvious choice? The follow up test for the weaker participants I didn’t get at all.
    I think this programme would benefit from having a longer time slot.
    Bravo BBC I am already hooked a must for ‘Apprentice’ and ‘Dragons’ fans has elements of both but with more finesse.
    All female viewers must agree the real star of the show is THAT FRENCH ACCENT !

  2. Hi Marie,

    You said, “this should not detract from his philosophy and values on manufacturing processes.” This is a fair point. However, the question I’m raising here is whether or not Phillipe Starck is not so much “Designing for Life” as “Designing for an affluent lifestyle.” If he is, then that’s fine, but it certainly would makes his “slaves” criticism of the bicycle feel both hollow and self-serving.

    As I said, I’m reserving judgment until watching more of the show. I’ll be paying close attention, as this is a topic I’m particularly interested in. I agree with Starck that the world needs to produce less throw-away crap, but I’m not convinced that creating and selling high-priced boutique artifacts is the way to change this.

  3. Hi there
    I was one of the contestants on the show, and really wanted to just add a little something to the last blog post, the idea that Starck is “designing for life” is that designers can, in the application of his philosophy and the material and make up choices for product, contribute somewhat to the sustainability of humanity and other species (i.e. if we make products simpler and create only the necessary in a way that still appeals to users and works well, then we lessen the impact on the environment and therefore we allow lifeforms to thrive) – common sense I think?!

  4. Ilsa,

    It is definitely common sense, and I agree entirely with the idea. It’s exactly the way I believe products should be designed.

    But I’ll stand by my statement that if those products can only be purchased by a select few then their impact will be minimal.

    I love to see and want to buy well designed products that are long-lasting, and can be easily repaired. Products that are made from materials that don’t require an intensive manufacturing process. Products that can be reused, be recycled or biodegrade. Products that aren’t energy-intensive.

    But those products are only going to make a real difference if most people can afford them, if they are not made for the small segment of the population that is concerned with owning a “designed object.”

    I’ll readily admit that my knowledge of Starck’s work is fairly limited. On an aesthetic level, some of his work appeals to me, and some of it doesn’t. But most of what I’ve encountered has been priced for and marketed to a fairly limited segment of the population.

    I should also add that I’m awed and inspired by what Starck is able to do. I am not a designer (but I’m married to one). I find his ability to create inspiring. I found myself agreeing with much of what he said during the show.

    The bicycle comment caught my attention because it’s an argument I’ve often made (i.e. “made by slaves”). I’m questioning Starck’s intentions in part because I’m questioning my own.

  5. The €90 bicycle is one of far too many products that are made for a price point – designed by a business man. It’s a ‘unit’ to be sold in huge quantities to people who may actually be able to afford a better quality bike, but find the price hard to refuse. It’s a trap. It is not possible to make a bicycle that is of sufficient quality for €90. It will have a short, disposible life. It will not be repaired because of our value perception of a €90 bike.

    This problem applies to so many products and I believe it is a serious issue, contributing to the world’s problems.

    A consumer is better off buying a better bicycle second hand for €90, but again, our perception of value kicks in.

    How many times have you heard (or even thought) I can buy 4 of these for the price of that one, it doesnt matter if it breaks…

    I have only seen the 1st episode, I love it, I love the fact there is so much talk about product design. I hope it makes consumers thing a little more. I know it is making me as a designer think more and motivates me to push our clients more. A designer has a lot of potential influence, but it goes nowhere if the client stops you in your tracks. If you are flying solo then thats another ball game.

    Looking forward to the rest of the show…

  6. Adam,

    Agreed. The €90 was undoubtedly poorly designed, and most likely designed to fall apart in just a few months.

    I suppose what I’m looking for is some kind of compromise between €90 bicycle and a $90 citrus juicer: products that are thoughtfully crafted and ethically made but that appeal to and can be afforded by wide range of people. I have no idea if such a thing is possible, but I really want to find out.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the show, as well.

  7. I think its really an issue for government, investment is needed in uk manufacturing and material innovation to assist in reducing production costs and material efficiency R+D first and foremost. Also as is often the case these days innovative development is stunted at the early stages as I feel that as a nation we are obsessed somewhat by measurable outcomes, therefore there is little scope for funding that allows experimentation and the possibility of failure, we are “safe” people us brits… If it makes money, works and people buy it then it is deemed “better” hence all of the products that are indeed “designed” by businessmen, Starck is right when he states that there is no “spirit” or “soul” in many of todays products…. a good designers focus is on human experience and intuition, so it is sometimes necessary to use production methods that are slightly pricier than those that have been tailored for profitability, hence the “designer” price tag…
    I am a designer, but am not a “designer”… I prefer the label of 3D creative…
    by the way, for those interested, there is now a trailer for episode 2 on you tube….

  8. Pingback: Design for Life contestants online and on twitter | otrops

  9. Hey Ilsa, I’m surprised you contestants are bound by contract with the show to lay low till the show is finished.

    See, I reckon you win the show, but you are not allowed to say anything right…

    An the issue of government investment, I actually thing the solution must be market driven. Consumers need to want better products, which in turn will drive business to want to invest in R&D. The show will hopefully help open some consumer eyes.

    3D Creative… hmmm, sounds a bit limiting.

    The link to Youtube is lost due to copyright

  10. Adam,

    Could you explain how government investment would make consumers want better products? By supporting designers and producers of sustainable products? Some kind of educational campaign?

  11. no no no, I actually mean the opposite. Government should stay out of it! If consumers dont want well designed products, thats a problem for designers, not the government.

  12. Adam,

    Thanks for clarifying that. I think I just misunderstood.

    By the way, I couldn’t agree more with this:

    The design, marketing, quality and price point should have consumers beating on the retailer’s door for your product.

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