I came across an article on Fast Company this morning, Samsung’s Latest TV Is Also An Unexpected Design Masterpiece, whose headline struck me with the use of the phrase “design masterpiece.” Beyond debating the merits and flaws of this specific product, it got me thinking in larger terms of what to consider in deeming something a “masterpiece” of design.
The word itself, masterpiece, has some interesting value attached to it these days. On one hand you can argue that it’s simply another subjective qualifier, carrying no more weight than deeming a piece of work “really good” or “really bad.” But in the context of modern criticism, I think the term carries more weight. I remember listening to a review of Mad Max: Fury Road on Filmspotting (filmspotting.net) in which they used the phrase “the M word” while they were debating just how great that film was (obivously the two hosts both had extremely positive reviews.) They were cheekily afraid of even saying the word, as if it had some mythical significance that should only be bestowed upon a select few pieces of work and dare not be attributed to, or even mentioned in the same breath as, those not worthy of the moniker. Whether or not you agree with this distinction or use of the word, it’s often the connotation with which it is used today: the absolute utmost praise for a work of art.
When applied to design, and more specifically product design, what should that mean? The Fast Company article does a decent job of praising the wide range of well-designed features of the product, from its physical construction and appearance to its user interface, outlining how they all combine to elevate the piece far above the status quo aesthetically, functionally, and emotionally. These merits, with differing levels of importance depending on the specific product being designed, are elements we all can agree must be combined to create a design possibly worth of the badge, masterpiece.
Where I believe the article is lacking, though, is in discussing the market viability of the product. Sure, “this is the TV [members of Co.Design’s editorial bullpen] all want,” but when was the last time you knew anyone, especially anyone of means (for whom this is obviously designed,) to buy a TV 40-inches or smaller, the only sizes the product comes in? Couple that with the fact that without publicly-released price points it’s fairly easy to assume this product will be expensive, possibly absurdly so, and you have the very real possibility that they’ve created an incredibly beautiful, functional product that is destined to fail commercially.
But should commercial success even be considered when debating whether or not a product is a masterpiece of design? Going back to film as an analogue, there are plenty of commercially unsuccessful films that we now wouldn’t hesitate to call masterpieces, including Citizen Kane (often touted as the greatest film ever made.) While commercial success is on the list of goals at the start of nearly every product design project, everyone who has been in the industry for any amount of time knows how many different factors can sink even the most thoughtful, beautiful, or innovative products.
Does a product have to check off every box in its list of goals, commercial success included, to be considered a masterpiece of design? Does it even matter? I don’t know. I’d love to hear thoughts on the subject from others.