Damaging Design Concepts

There is a design concept that I have seen on Yanko Design which has become hugely popular though trackbacks and comments, which of course means it has been popular in the eyes of general readers; Plug It On The Window - Yanko Design

The issue that has arisen and that I believe is a concern is that it is misleading readers to believe that this concept is a real product and would actually work; a tiny solar panel isn’t going to store enough energy in a 1000 mAh battery to power mains products (or a mains phone charger) through an inverter, even if the solar cell was 100% efficient.

I believe that these types of design concepts undermine the credibility of good designers and miseducate ‘normal’ people when it is already very hard to encourage them to be sustainable and ‘green’.

Perhaps this reflects the knowledge and understanding of the average person, which is why we designers need to educate and encourage them to be good and sustainable through design and awareness.

How does anyone else feel about this, do we not have a responsibility as designers to not mislead and deceive?
Are there any more examples out there (I’m sure there are)?
What should we do?


I’d say most of what is posted on Yanko are student projects. This has an up and a downside. The up being that is a platform to showcase student work and get exposure, the downside relates to your argument.

This isn’t the first solar powered phone charger concept I have seen. You are right, it plays on confusion of the general public and possibly even some designers - they know solar power exists so they think this concept will work.

However, I wouldn’t say this concept harms the credibility of designers. Concepts are there to say “this is what could be” the trouble with this one is that it is just so plausible. I’d say if it gets enough traction something like this could be a product someone puts in to development and finds a way to get the technology to work.

In the case of this concept, if it was a student piece of work then as far as testing a real prototype and having a full understanding of the technology was not a requirement of the brief. Which is why it ended up on Yanko.

The trouble in a way is that communication tools have gotten so advanced to the laymen that these look like pictures of a real working product.

Being ‘green’ is still a trendy topic in design schools and students are making statement products that reinvent a way to recycle every year but in my opinion if we are to make an impact, ‘green’ decisions need to made at every level and in such a way that does not drastically impact everyday life. A lot of companies now are making sure their packaging is recyclable or has another purpose afterwards.

I don’t think it’s as serious as you’re making it out to be… I did a quick calculation and to generate just enough power to charge a cell phone with the most efficient solar cells out there, you would need about a 6 inch diameter. The most efficient solar panels are only about 12% efficient, so with improvements in technology, it could conceivably produce enough power at that size.
Getting into the battery specs was probably not the best decision on their part, especially if it’s supposed to be a concept project.

Guidelines for future solar student projects:

  1. Find your power requirements here: http://standby.lbl.gov/summary-table.html
  2. Divide the number by 150
  3. Get your area in square meters

1969 the movie “2001; A Space Odyssey” was released. among the many fantastical things seen in the movie are two of the astronauts eating a meal while watching the nightly news on their individual tablet like devices.

Stanley Kubrick worked very closely with a team of Industrial Designers from corporations across the industry to build what he thought was a realistic vision of what the world would be like 30 years in the future (closer to 40 from when he started) but a lot of these technologies were as big of a pipe dream as a tiny solar cell. While there were a lot of misses in the movie, he was petty close on the tablet! I think there is a lot of this in SciFi, from Minority Report interfaces to Iron Man CAD. I don’t think it was harmful.

Our biggest benefit as designers is to create usable and pleasurable experiences, I think a part of that is futurecasting to some degree. As long as that is an element of what we do, and not confused with our primary mission to make those experiences a reality, I think it is healthy.

I think a lot more people watched 2001 than read Yanko anyway :wink:

I’ve been guilty of shovelling food in to my mouth whilst glued to my iPad on many occasions, although I wasn’t living in a space station unfortunately!

Back on to topic if we as designers are to be ‘green’ then there are steps we can take that aren’t too in your face. Here is an example from Seymourpowell showing how packaging they designed for a product can be turned in to cable management:

OK maybe I have over-reacted and it may just be reflection of the type of design education that I am exposed to; I study at two distinctly different universities of the engineering and designer variety and I am expected to deliver ambitious designs that are technically feasible.

My main issue with concept was the illogical reasoning of utilising a mains-plug port (and requiring the step up of 1.2v to 240v and then to 5v again) for charging the specified devices that typically run off 5v. A USB port would have clearly sufficed.

Thank you Yo for reminding me of the need to future cast; I often feel conflicted between my designer hat and my ‘engineer’ hat :slight_smile: .

Nice video iamdave, the seymourpowell concept is elegant. Just as good design is invisible, perhaps ‘green’ design should be too.


Completely agree on this point, anything that would need a mains port over a USB would draw way too much power.

What universities are you studying at? Sounds like a good program.

I’m on the Design and Innovation course at Queen Mary and Goldsmiths universities of London; it is a shame as due to education funding cuts, Goldsmiths will no longer support our small course; it is kept between 10-20 student intake for quality control.
There is a demand for designers with an engineering exposure and that is why Queen Mary (which is the ‘engineering’ side of our course) continues to support it.


James, you stated,

"How does anyone else feel about this, do we not have a responsibility as designers to not mislead and deceive? "

I find your use of internet to voice criticism of design very well positioned. However, your query does not take into consideration a variety of contexts that can be used to better understand the situation.

As a practicing designer and design educator in Korea, I see very well the differences and approaches to design and design education in the East as well as the West. You must know and understand that modern design and its workflows has a bit of jump over there in England, and as a result has a very different approach to solving problems and communicating design solutions. One of the things that is going on is that as the UK becomes more and more mature in its application of industrial design, the more efficient it becomes as it begins to include more practical questions like energy consumption, manufacture and finance/cash flow/return on investment projection etc. into the design solution. Here in Korea, due to the nature of education, this is not possible quite yet. Few design programs even at the top tier level here are able to collaborate and address a wider raft of issues when using design to solve a problem as is the case in many western design programs. This is changing rapidly however.

Understanding the nature and design of an academic curriculum must be considered when offering design criticism these days, and because of the internet and the sharing economy we are now better able to do so. The trouble is, most of the criticism I see is one way from West to East and this is not going away any time soon. As an instructor who has seen way too many similar projects like the one you mentioned in the past 4 years, understand that many of the students (who are usually 2nd or 3rd year) are using concepts to build their skills in CAD, design communication and innovation in order to be published on Yanko in order to build their resume and credentials. This is ok, and is encouraged as it builds skills and matures the design student to take on bigger challenges later.

What might help you understand better what you are seeing on the internet at sites like Yanko is the education systems and curriculums are vastly different between nations. In Korea especially, due to the high population and competitive nature of the economy, it is not necessary (according to some yet) to collaborate on such a level as is the case in the UK. The discipline of design is much more segmented and specialized due to its function as a manufacturing hub, rather than an innovation hub. This is however under great pressure to change and evolve.

To think that this kind of international critique of design was not possible 15 years ago…we are all the better for it I think. My final reply is to ask, “what is your solution to this problem?”

designbreathing, I enjoy your insight into this and you are clearly in a position to better explain the situation.

There must be potential for international collaboration between schools and universities on the matter. This is something I have experienced on my course in collaborating with the European and Asian students; it results in diversified design and we all discover new cultural thinking and ideals, but often we have similar goals and intentions. There is no doubt that Korean students could benefit from collaborating with other design universities globally.

Perhaps the issue with specialisation and segmentation can be facilitated once students undertake in broader view of product design and engineering, i.e. model it for real, build a working electronic prototype. I guess this is what we tend do in the West and will transmit to the East students.

I guess my initial criticism stemmed from my approach to have found prior art and future developments to verify the potential technology and build a stronger case.


What you suggest is the proper way forward. International exchanges among students and schools are the solution indeed. However, these programs take time and resources that are threatened by outside economic forces in my experience.

I work with several design schools in Seoul and both have set up vast networks of partnerships with design programs overseas. From what I have observed, the programs are slow to get to actual mutual exchange where it can benefit the student, rather it poses as a goodwill gesture among business partners and school administrators on the front end. One of the schools who has partnered with a program in the UK has taken 4 years to get students from the UK to visit Seoul. Meanwhile, the Korean students have only been able to visit the UK campus for 2 weeks at a time. Clearly not enough time to dig in and absorb design from another culture that is not in the fashion of a mere holiday vacation. It is better than nothing, and in the end it will take more time to achieve the osmosis and understanding of other design culture in order to adapt it to the “other” culture and vice versa.

The broader view of design and engineering is challenging to achieve within the confines of the systems here in Asia, but there is a lot of work that has been done to try to change this. Education and business is very hierarchical and becomes problematic when trying to innovate new programs. Inviting foreign educators is the flavor of the month for now. I push for such broader approaches but there is 5000 years of tradition that gets in the way of quick understanding and results.

James: Sometimes I feel the same way. I’ve had clients that thought I was lazy because I couldn’t break the laws of physics. This concept is especially easy to validate. We know that the sun delivers 136W per sq. meter. No solar panel can beat this and so we have to design around that.

I remember at Uni, my final project was something like an iPad. The biggest issue in 2001 was the battery. LCD monitors and touch screens have existed from the 1970’s, but batteries were still pretty big. However, I did look up the power consumption of the screen and the capacity of existing batteries and guessed at what could be made in a few years. The huge space for a battery that I finally selected was overkill by 20 times at least compared to the iPad. Oh well, at least I tried:)

Sorry for being late to this party…but it was just brought to my attention by Mirk.

Where do you get this number and who is “We”? As the number that is thrown around is variable, however the typical number I get given to me is that an equitorial sq meter receives 1Kilowatt of energy. With a conversion of 13.6% efficiency using Photovoltaic, that is correct that you get 136 watts per sq meter.