Machines v. Humans

In a recent Autocar, Chris Bangle is quoted:

Right now, we are at a crossroads which is going the wrong way. Designers have helped convince the world that you will prefer things made by machines rather than people; you will prefer perfection over character. That unfortunately is disenfranchising a huge amount of this planet’s population.

First, I agree with him that the de-humanizing is out of hand and ultimately detrimental to our civilization. The design example to me is the smartphone. No one is doing anything interesting with the hardware. It’s all bland, precision machined soap bars, including Apple. The cultural example is pop music. Listening to pop from the '70s I hear cracking voices, slightly out of tune guitars, beats that are just a fraction of a second off. Nothing that makes it sound bad, but it sounds human. Today’s pop is so well produced that it becomes an inhuman wall of blandness. That god we have rap and hip-hop defending humans doing music.

Second, I don’t think designers are to blame. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in architectural products for my whole career, but the designers I meet are excited about wood, marble, stone, leather, glass: all materials that are imprecise or inconsistent. We (designers) love to try to use that give a human/natural touch to the products.

What does the forum think?

I’d be curious to read the whole article. To me he’s referring to several different issues. Lack of character and automation in mass manufacturing.

Economics and the industrial in industrial design is ultimately what is driving humans out of manufacturing. Unfortunately, I have a hard time seeing that trend going backwards. As much as people like character, I have a hard time imagining people wanting to pay 10x on everyday items. Not to mention the logistical nightmare of products being all unique. With that said with price being such a primary driver, it seems like finding any kind of product that’s built to last puts it in the premium category and that seems to be turning off a lot of people.

There is a trend bucking this with bespoke/maker/craft items where customers see value in the unicity of products. I’m not sure how much of it is trend vs turning your back a mass produced bland stuff.

On the flip side, I would agree with him that a lot of products seem to lack character. I think the main reason for this is high risk adverseness in corporation. I think there’s a failire to realize that marketing in many ways starts with the product. Selling your vanilla ice cream over everyone else’s vanilla ice cream is a race to the bottom when you could spend the resources upfront to make different flavors.

Minimalism may not have helped this situation. While I think successful minimal designs don’t lack character the style seems to give the licence to make some really soulless stuff.

Yes! Dear god I’d love to see an interesting smartphone. I’d even settle for an interesting smartphone interface in the interim…

But people DO pay more for quality in almost every category.

Example 1: Leather boot from Wal-Mart, roughly $45. Handmade Red Wing Heritage boot, $350.
Example 2: “Schwinn” Mountain Bike from Target: $199 - Moots Custom Titanium Mountain Bike $3K-$6K depending.

In both examples, all products sell relatively well. People are willing to spend for quality (or pay for some kind of actual or perceived value), when it means something to them. Again, in all segments, down to dishwasher soap.

aren’t those examples kinda missing the point? it isn’t that people don’t pay a premium for actual or perceived value, but the distribution of people willing to do so at scale, right?

maybe manufacturing to this point has dehumanized or disconnected people from making things, but when you look at how people spend their money, manufactured goods/products seem to be taking up less of people’s income. so you could easily take the view that it has generally been a good thing…

the example of a smartphone is an interesting one, because there actually have been quite a few attempts to do interesting things with the hardware, both with the form & with materials…they just didn’t take or haven’t yet caught on and arguably why would their need to be something interesting done to the hardware when many are just going to put it in a protective case? imperfection sounds novel & ‘adds character’ when talking about music or objects that are/can be sentimental (and it may just be that was the limitation of what they were capable of a the time, who is to say if they couldn’t have got it more precise they wouldn’t) but super frustrating when you need the designed object to do a task or when the off spec thing costs you money…and it isn’t like (hand)crafted objects have ceased to exist

i think what he is basically saying is that technology disenfranchises people and we’re losing something in the process…but that is the kinda story of civilization…i think the pursuit of perfection (or the ideal as it related to something being quality, useful, or well made) predates or at least coincides with, the designed object…

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Perhaps this is off topic, but I can’t stand the humanisation of the smart phone interfaces. Reading “The clock is now a quarter past five” is cute 1 time, but pretty annoying in the long run… “17.15” may be soulless but actually give me more peace of mind.

Not to mention Siri. I don’t need to talk to my phone like it’s a human being. I need it to perform a task because my hands are busy doing something else. The “What can I do for you” dialogue drives me mad - just sound a frigging bleep when ready like the good robot you are… /rant.

I don’t think hand made means expensive. In a Western example, I had a sport jacket made and it cost about as much as what I would have found at the store (which are hand made too, just in another far away place).

In another example is glassware. Almost everywhere it is still hand made using the same processes as hundreds of years ago. I’ve seen factories that look identical (except for size) in China, India, Poland and Romania. I bet there are even a few in the US and Canada. This is unlikely to change too. It turns out that it is really hard to do mechanically and expensive to adjust machinery to make multiple designs. And this is a product that can be bought for $.99 at Ikea!

Louis: The article wasn’t really about this. It was about the various projects Bangle’s firm has worked on with this quote at the end.

I’ll tackle this one as I know you and I are on polar sides of this spectrum…music has fallen into the hands of those seeking large dollars because there is no longer room for musicians to make a living wage unless you are filling larger venues and selling gobs of t-shirts. The digital trade of music has destroyed music at the same time.

You once said music should be free for everyone to enjoy, which means that music must be created by people - for free - and then freely distributed. It caters to the mentality of the Lowest Common Denominator which does nothing but bland everything down.

So, it is my opinion, that music created with drum machines and pitch correction is easier. You don’t need to develop talent, you just need to produce it well and crank out a lot of it. So, with little to no margin to make money people will go the route of easy to make the buck.

C’mon now guys, you can’t suck and blow. 10 years ago you were all cheering that Apple had hit the pinnacle of simplicity. That the Smartphone championed what we were all aiming for…the simplest solution to a problem. I remember statements like, the design is so amazing that it “just disappears”.

I know that time keeps marching and that things change…but Designers have reaped what they’ve sown here.

It doesn’t necessarily mean expensive, but it does mean cheap (non-living wage?) labour.

I agree with you here Ray. I think there was a brief moment where there was a cohort of ID graduates that wanted everything to be minimal, put shapes, and matte/gloss white, black or red plastic (IE easy to model in CAD and render)… but most designers I know are into old things, things that patina, things that are made not manufactured, and a lot of us are always trying to squeeze that into production work… that sad thing is when it does make it, it can flop in the marketplace. A lot of the Polk Heritage product I worked on did not meet sales goals. Of course there were tons of other factors, the right distribution was not lined up, there wasn’t a deep enough targeted media buy to reach the right person, time was not spent free-seeding product with influencers… but on the end of the day it is a poor reflection on the design language, and when we toned it down, kept the form language but went back to black plastics, the sales went up… The only things I were able to save outside the forms were a slight brushed nice finish to all of the metallic (instead chrome or silver paint…) and some interesting textiles for the grilles (though that was a knockdown drag out fight to keep!)

I think there is a bit of a “safe” mentality when it comes to purchasing decisions. IE," I’m in Best Buy, and all of the other choices are black plastic rectangles, so that must be the right thing to get. This mahogany and white speaker must be the wrong thing to get…". Most people want product like that to blend in. When they are in a retail environment and all of the other products are black plastic bricks, that seems to blend in. When they come home maybe they realize their room is not made of black plastic bricks and that thing actually stands out now!.. a couple of years after the heritage launch I was able to bring the walnut finishes and white back for independent retailers, so they would have something different from Best Buy and Amazon, and they crushed with it. It was the right distribution channel with a true sales team and a nicer retail environment to help the user make sense of the product.

although i think it is maybe somewhat debatable, most can concede that (music) creation is easier given the capability & ubiquitousness of affordable tools…but i think you are romanticizing pop music of yesteryear a bit, popular music has always been comparatively well produced and the purview of profit seekers. i feel like it has been the case that most musicians have always had a tough go making a living wage from the music exclusively…

now it is a fact that digitization of music has only made it that much more competitive and probably makes the few big music companies still here even more interested in investing in music that has broad appeal as their business model of using the big acts to subsidize, develop, & find other artists doesn’t work nearly as well now. the flipside is not only is there arguably way more diverse, niche music being made now (absent a quality judgement) but as a result people have broader/more interests across musical genres and seem more willing listen to different music; albeit maybe not as deep…i think because hip-hop, even more than popular music, has been so openly entrepreneurial, that has perhaps helped it thus far reconstitute itself into different incarnations in ways that other genres have not?

isn’t the process of cranking out a lot of music is the process of developing talent? granted the incubation period (if at all given how easy it is to publish) is maybe much shorter…

that last bit matters, there are plenty of sensible, if maybe not always fully informed, reasons why people would not choose a product that naturally patinas or incorporates some more ‘natural’ materials in a retail spot like best buy, having a product exist the in a certain context & with a knowledgeable staff, catered to a certain audience is super advantageous…

it’s almost like older classic vehicles vs. new vehicles, in the abstract maybe most people would love to own a classic vehicle and very much appreciate it’s character, but the reality is that the maintenance & upkeep might not be something they’d want to deal with, pay the premium for, or even really be able to use regularly…

Well…A handmade boat will have more human spirit, but you will also need more spirit not crashing it into the rocks when storm hits.
You can also turn your attention to a superhuman god-like perfection, but that doesn’t mean you won’t drown.
Therefore you need experts that can integrate form, function and human interaction - the industrial designer.

Music: I’ve learned some things since my previous pronouncement. The first thing that is quite surprising is that up until the 1960’s, most music revenue for the artist was in sheet music, not recording. That goes into the other point, which is that before 120 years ago, there was no record industry. Musicians made money mainly from local performance and touring. A lucky few from writing sheet music.

The thought experiment is to imagine what they thought of records. It fundamentally changed their market. All of a sudden, Jean-François went from getting all the gigs in Chicoutimi to competing against the best singers in the Francophonie on records. Some bars stopped having him and just played records of Johnny Hallyday. This means that the music industry went from being a very broad profession where alot of people could make a living to one where there were extreme winners and losers. That slightly evened out in the 1970s-2000 as the royalty system changed and became a little more accommodating for artists with small and loyal followings. Now, we’ve returned to the era of extreme winners and losers.

One last thing, I’ve heard that some acts are actually making more money then ever on their catalog. Some classic 1970s Fleetwood Mac actually charts around 200-300 region on Spotify today. Looking at Spotify right now, “Go Your Own Way” has 172 million streams (I’m assuming monthly?) At the minimum that’s $1 million US.

Design: I agree about the changing attitude to Apple. However, isn’t that how trends work? Modernism was partly a reaction to Art Nouveau. Art Deco was a reaction to modernism, etc. I was thinking about this in the car this morning. It’s funny how everyone in my class of '02 was pretty much desiring to design Braun products. Today, it seems like graduating students are more into mid-century modern designs. Some of us have evolved with the trends, others are still fighting the last battle. I think that Bangle is definitely trying to evolve.

Economics: I think mass manufacturing tends to make extreme winners and losers. 200 years ago, we paid a town craftsman to design and make a chair for our home. Today, a small group of people at Ikea get that business and the local craftsman is working somewhere else. There are benefits and losses to each.

I agree. Everything in described in this thread is driven by culture, designers can only react to culture, they never form it. Now I may get some blowback on those last 4 words, but think about it. No “design movement” created a significant cultural change. Bauhau. Arts & Crafts. Mid-Century Modern. All just filled a niche at best.

Automation and technology have driven our modern objects, for good and bad. No amount of hand-wringing will change that.

iab: I would argue designers co-create culture. The objects that resonate (like the iMac, iPod and iPhone) drive the culture forward a little bit. For example, I think that Apple’s designers did drive the 2000s modernism bus forward more than anyone else.

But where is Apple’s modernism in the kitchen dishes section of WalMart?

It ain’t there. And it ain’t there in the door section of Home Depot and it ain’t in men’s shoes at Kohls.

It is only a conversation on an internet board that 8 people visit. It is not culture.

iab, I don’t think that is a totally fair assessment. There will always be multiple simultaneous trends, counter trends, and just bad design and taste. While it might not be at Walmart, it was at Target (largely moved through, but still can be found in some sections) and Ikea. Mid market it did very well at the likes of West Elm, CB2, and even moved things at Crate and Barrel and Room & Board… and of course at the high end with DWR. I think we will see a return to modernism in shared devices like autonomous transport. I could even see a bifurcation with owned objects going through extreme customization and shared objects becoming super clean, devoid of expression. You can kind of see this already with the crazy customization (not always tasteful) that Bentley, Ferrari, and RR are doing.

iab: First, I disagree that the recent modernist trend didn’t trickle elsewhere. In fact, the most recent Ikea offerings are very modern. I see similar things in Wal-Mart.

Second, as Yo stated, there are multiple trends. I think one of the good things about our era is that there is more diversity than ever, it’s just not available everywhere at the same time.

My architectural background reminds me of the industrial / steam punk trend. That had been percolating for 15+ years on the internet and through some very specialized retailers. Now industrial styled lighting is in the big box stores.

Last, is the cultural influence. I think it’s not a coincidence that electronic dance music and Apple are popular at the same time. I think graphics have moved on, but maybe 5 years ago everything getting very simple. I think of Google’s flat design language and even MS metro. I think if I was more aware of fiction and TV, I could probably make some links to those, but alas I watch very little TV and seldom read fiction.

I agree these things you mention exist. Where I disagree is with the significance that designers place on them.

They rock a designer’s world. They rock a tiny portion of the first world. That’s it. Funny no designer here has mentioned country music, #1 at least in the US. Why do you suppose that is?

I’ll walk into Target today and see the vast majority being non-modern design. Sure, I can find modern, but how long did Phillipe Starck’s stuff last there? 1 second? 2 seconds? And steampunk? Really? Give me marketshare numbers. Let me know when it breaks 0.01%.