I believe it was Plato who said, “Necessity is the mother of invention, and we are lousy with orphans”. There’s no doubt, orphanry can be fun, but when the gruel runs dry and the cardboard suitcase get wet it’s time to start thinking about the choices we’ve made. Was it really a good idea to kill my parents?
As in our day, Plato – the ancient academic who was raised by well-to-do politically active parents (Did Cal Berkeley have an annex in Athens?) – lived in a time when technology was making great strides. However these advances were not without their downside. The Greeks gave us such fundamental tools as gears, screws, rotary mills and screw presses but these designs would eventually be supplanted in importance by the less useful yet more consumer esteemed SPIROGRAPH. Hero of Alexandria invented the first vending machine, which dispensed holy water. Eventually certain citizens pressured members of the Delian League to replace the holy water with organic gluten free coconut juice - Soon after, Hero went out of business. And in 1900 sponge divers working for Scotch-Brite discovered an ancient shipwreck along the coast of Antikythera. Among its cargo was a 2000 year-old Greek analogue computer designed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses. It also had Apps for a lunar calendar, spotting constellations and a game called Angry Griffons. The excesses of Greek culture and its throw-away merchandising is what prompted Plato to write in his Socratic Dialogue, “Leeches Major”:
Socrates- “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die, and you to live.”
Herpes- “You can add Gaul Fries a and drink for just a stater more”
Socrates- “OK, and can I get some extra Hemlock?”
Vitas Gerulaitis- “We’ll take it to go.”
History has shown that once a people achieve a certain amount of affluence their concerns tend to turn to the inane. The struggle for life’s basic necessities are replaced with an effort to exist in a consequence free pleasure zone where “cool” ranks higher than “useful” at the word exchange. Where creating things in the real world with your own hands is the title of a coffee table book. Where clearly communicated information takes a back seat to umlauts. And where the designer’s credo is, “Form follows fads”
For me it started with the button over the dial in car radios. My first car made a lot of strange noises. Not strange Léon Theremin noises, strange mechanical noises. After checking the oil (For bedbugs I supposed), the only thing I knew to do was buy a new stereo. Noises gone! I loved that stereo. It was a 24 watt, auto reverse, front/rear fader with seek tuning locks, metal-CrO/Normal tape selector (The metal-CrO was better because the tapes were see-through), pyramid phase equalizer (Which I think meant you could see the music?), LCD display, 12 presets and automatic key-off tape release – perfect for crankin’ some “Man eater”. But all of that would have been for naught (From the Old English meaning about 30% off) if it weren’t for the dials. Patented by IBM in 1949 the first dial took up 1200 square feet and weighed 4 tons. With the discovery of smallness in the late 1950s, dials became the preferred method for washing machine operation, volume control and acquiring dollars. That is until the button made a comeback in the early-90s. Practically overnight, the button began to replace the dial in everything from radios to home appliances to personal computers (Which had also benefitted from the smallness discovery). Especially in the car stereo was this a problem. Instead of a quick twist of the wrist to adjust volume or find a new station, we were now loath to identify the specially designed indistinct button and hold our finger on it, through all types of terrain, for as long as it would take for the stereo to acknowledge our endeavor and then proceed – slowly at first, then at the speed of light – to the desired result (More or less). This, of course, resulted in inadvertent treble variations, discovery of not a few Spanish speaking stations, accidental radio face ejections and a couple of moon roof breaches in the rain. Perfect for crankin’ some “Gangsta’s Paradise”.
Nowadays buttons and dials seem to have assimilated ergonomically and have found an equitable place for each. But what generally refuses to assimilate into human culture is packaging. The ketchup packet is one of many types of wrappers found in the Genus: Sticky; Family: Single use; Order: Open with teeth. Originally people complained about these packets but over time the public has learned the proper steps to get a dab on three fries and two sleeves and, somehow, the bottom edge of the table.
Another much maligned packaging system is the plastic clam-shell. Originally developed for use in birth control, the plastic clam-shell has since been utilized in multiple consumer applications, commercial air manufacturing for “black box” construction and, due to its virtual indestructibility and razor-sharp edges, has recently caught the attention of the defense industry. While companies site a fear of litigation should a consumer become injured by the object inside the packaging, very little attention is paid to the dangers during product liberation. Opponents argue that most of these manufacturers lobby heavily for the right to use the system but are adamant about restricting rogue countries like Iran and North Korea from access to the technology.
Of, course no rant about poor packaging design (Is that what this is?) would be complete without discussing child proofing. So let’s just consider this abbreviated.
Through all the clutter of chewing gum “Freshness rings” and two foot long CD boxes the greatest example of design apathy comes from our dear friends at Yoplait. Contrary to popular belief, Yoplait is a French made yogurt. It was developed in the late 1930s as a dessert substitute during the war owing to ice cream shortages and the fact that many Germans were lactose intolerant. The container design was, likely, an act of defiance by the resistance. Designed by the Marquis de Sade, the cup’s beauty is in its brutal simplicity. The conical shape, which tapers at the top, provides for a good portion of material to be transported while very little of it can be consumed as few spoons are narrow enough to penetrate the opening and those that are possess very modest portion potential. This feature combined with the concave bottom, which serves to trap a good 21% of the product, work in concert to render the attempted eater highly unsatisfied. Should, in desperation, the target make an effort to scrape under the lip of the opening with ones spoon the small, strategically located, fins frustrate the attempt leaving no choice but to attempt an oral offensive which invariably results in a bloodied tongue. Vive La France!
As one will quickly come to know with frequent visits to this blog, I think the problem is that there are simply too many people. Too many consumers that just accept what they’re presented, too many job descriptions that include the words “designer” and/or “creative” and too many accredited art schools. I know Billy Joel says the old days weren’t always good but he’s talking about the 1960s. The real good old days were the 1860s. Back when the phrase “form follows function” meant long johns with cut-out seats. When people texted only because the phone wasn’t an option. When men were men (Or at least 3/5ths men in the progressive states). When people didn’t waste money on customizing their Victorolla and they were satisfied with their piano. Perfect for crankin’ some “Ol’ Suzanna”.