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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People by Emily Pilloton,  Foreword by Allan Chochinov (Metropolis Books) In January of 2008, with a thousand dollars, a laptop and an outsized conviction that design can change the world, rising San Francisco-based product designer and activist Emily Pilloton launched Project H Design, a radical non-profit that supports, inspires and delivers life-improving humanitarian product design. "We need to go beyond 'going green' and to enlist a new generation of design activists," she wrote in an influential manifesto. "We need big hearts, bigger business sense and the bravery to take action now."
Featuring more than 100 contemporary design products and systems--safer baby bottles, a high-tech waterless washing machine, low-cost prosthetics for landmine victims, Braille-based Lego-style building blocks for blind children, wheelchairs for rugged conditions, sugarcane charcoal, universal composting systems, DIY soccer balls--that are as fascinating as they are revolutionary, this exceptionally smart, friendly and well-designed volume makes the case for design as a tool to solve some of the world's biggest social problems in beautiful, sustainable and engaging ways--for global citizens in the developing world and in more developed economies alike. Particularly at a time when the weight of climate change, global poverty and population growth are impossible to ignore, Pilloton challenges designers to be changemakers instead of "stuff creators." Urgent and optimistic, a compendium and a call to action, Design Revolution is easily the most exciting design publication to come out this year.
Emily Pilloton is the founder and Executive Director of Project H Design, a global industrial design nonprofit with eight chapters around the world. Trained in architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and product design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pilloton started Project H in 2008 to provide a conduit and catalyst for need-based product design that empowers individuals, communities and economies. Current Project H initiatives include water transport and filtration systems in South Africa and India; an educational math playground built for elementary schools in Uganda and North Carolina; a homeless-run design coop in Los Angeles; and design concepts for foster care education and therapy in Austin, Texas.
Allan Chochinov is Editor in Chief of Core77.com, and writes and lectures widely on the impact of design on contemporary culture.

Excerpt: An Industrial Design Revolution

I believe that design is problem solving with grace and foresight. I believe that there’s always a better way. I believe that design is a human instinct, that people are inherently optimistic, that every man is a designer, and that every problem can either be defined as a design problem or solved with a design solution. And I believe that in an ideal (design) world, there would be no need for this book, because we as designers would be more responsible and socially productive citizens than we have become.

In January 2008, I founded Project H Design based on these ideals with about $1,000 in savings, two design degrees, over $70,000 in student loans, “office space” at the dining room table in my parents’ house, and a lot of frustration with the design world. Project H—a nonprofit organization supporting product design initiatives for humanity, habitats, health, and happiness; one part design firm, one part advocacy group—has seen meteoric growth since then. Our global chapters have worked on projects ranging from water transport and filtration systems to educational devices, retail products co-designed with homeless shelter residents, therapeutic solutions for foster care homes, and more. Partner organizations, a committed board of directors and advisors, and hundreds of volunteers have joined our efforts. Most days Project H’s “headquarters” is wherever there is Wi-Fi and coffee, and I like to think of our global “coalition” as relevant everywhere and based nowhere. As my personal mission has grown into a greater collective drive, Project H has become, I hope, a means to enable designers and enable life through design. Its growth has both surprised me, given my lack of business acumen, and delighted me, proving that I am not alone in my inability to settle for an industrial design career that does nothing but perpetuate the senseless need for, and purchasing of, more stuff.

As a whole, today’s world of design (specifically product design) is severely deficient, crippled by consumerism and paralyzed by an unwillingness to financially and ethically prioritize social impact over the bottom line. We need nothing short of an industrial design revolution to shake us from our consumption-for-consumption’s-sake momentum. We must elevate “design for the greater good” beyond charity and toward a socially sustainable and economically viable model taught in design schools and executed in design firms, one that defines the ways in which we prototype, relate to clients, distribute, measure, and understand. We must be designers of empowerment and rewrite our own job descriptions. We must design with communities, rather than for clients, and rethink what we’re designing in the first place, not just how we design the same old things. We must constantly find ways to do things better, through both our designs themselves and the ways in which we operate as designers.

On a trip to Cuba in 2000, I became enchanted by the large-scale graphic murals that adorn Havana’s concrete surfaces. They read, “En cada barrio, revolución,” meaning, “In every neighborhood, revolution.” The graphics date to the early 1960s, in the years just following the revolution, when Fidel Castro deployed neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) to monitor the safety, spending, crime, and counterrevolutionary activity within each community block. Most of the murals, which are gorgeous examples of midcentury graphic design, include the CDR’s crestlike symbol, advertising both the omnipresence of “revolution” as an idea and the literal omnipresence of the CDR neighborhood watch¬men.

And while the propaganda reeks of a certain “Big Brother” totalitarianism, Cuban citizens tend not to view it that way. The murals’ words are still relevant today, as evidenced by new versions of the motto appearing in contemporary graffiti and street art as statements of national identity and individual rights. During my trip, as I stood admiring one of the murals along El Malecón, the often-photographed seaside road in Havana, an elderly man told me, “They are reminders that we can change things. Revolution is in our blood; it’s who we are. We’ll always fight and try to make our lives better.” His description, in many ways, pinpoints both the need and the motivation for this book. Humans have an instinct to seek out better ways, and designers possess the toolbox (and responsibility) to deliver solutions that make those ways accessible and improve life.

As effective designers, we must find efficiencies, bring new function to daily life, and, we hope, do so with some grace or beauty. But our constant search for improvement must extend beyond the things we design to include our own function as designers. Shouldn’t being a designer mean more than the traditional model of object maker and creator of more crap? Shouldn’t we be trusted to make things better? Shouldn’t we be relied upon as problem solvers in times of crisis? I believe that we should and we can, and I hope this book makes the case for the value of such a species of “citizen designers.” In this intro¬duction, you will find three sections that define the context (“Ready . . .”), toolbox (“Set . . .”), and actions (“Go . . .”) required for a design revolution that puts social impact and human needs first. More than 100 examples in this book’s eight categories are evidence of the ability of need-based, humanitarian design to empower and enable individuals, communities, and economies. Design Revolution is both a reference and a roadmap, a call to action and a compendium.

The good news is that my personal sentiments are not even remotely uncommon. The tide is turning within design schools, among emerging designers, and in the offices of global design consultancies. Social entrepreneurship has emerged as a business model that effectively supports design for social impact, providing a sustainable economic framework for the distribution of empowering design solutions. Sharing knowledge through information platforms like the Open Architecture Network and the Designers Accord allows us to more efficiently use and learn from each other’s best practices. And global efforts with quantifiable aims, such as the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, give us something to work toward collectively across disciplines. We have, for perhaps the first time, both the weight of an urgent problem and the power of a collective toolbox to solve some of the biggest global issues. It’s a group effort requiring individual commitments. Let’s rally the troops: In every designer, revolution.

History of Modern Design by David Raizman (Prentice Hall) Design plays an integral part in our lives, surrounding us at home and in the office. The products of design—whether in the form of household products, packaging, fashion, software, industrial equipment, or promotional images in the mass media—can be seen both as objects of beauty and as the result of creative human endeavors. 

This insightful, wide-ranging book surveys applied arts and industrial design from the eighteenth century to the present day, exploring the dynamic relationship between design and manufacturing, and the technological, social, and commercial context in which this relationship developed. The effects of a vastly enlarged audience for the products of modern design and the complex dynamic of mass consumption are also discussed. Part of this dynamic reveals that products serve as symbols for desires that have little to do with need or function. 

Wide-ranging examples of product and graphic design are shown—and their significance within the history of design explained—including vessels and other objects made from glass, ceramics, plastic, or metal, as well as tableware, furniture, textiles, lighting, housings for electric appliances, machines and equipment, cars, tools, books, posters, magazines, illustrations, advertisements, and digital information. The book also explores the impact of a wealth of new manmade industrial materials on the course of modern design—from steel to titanium, plywood to plastic, cotton to nylon, wire to transistors, and from microprocessors to nanotubes. The research, development, and applications of these technologies are shown as depending upon far-reaching lines of communication, stretching across geographical and linguistic boundaries. In this way, David Raizman reveals the history of modern design as a global history. 

As a subject for historical investigation concentrating upon describing and understanding change, the meanings of design may emerge from the study of art history, technology, politics, economics, as well as consumer behavior – that is, we may appreciate the products of design as objects of beauty and cre­ative human endeavor, as efforts of designers to engage with new materials, methods of production, or to promote particular social ideologies, as outcomes of economic conditions within a system of capitalist free enterprise which requires and stimulates ever-expanding markets and increasing levels of consumption, as challenges to that system, and as examples of the complex moti­vations of the mass market. A plurality of perspectives allows us to think about the considerations of artists, engineers, designers, manufacturers, and consumers in determining the meaning of design history.

The material for this study includes vessels and other objects made from glass, ceramics, plastic, or metal, tableware, furni­ture, textiles in their use for curtains, carpets, upholstery, cloth­ing, and wall coverings, patterns printed or woven for surface decoration, lighting, housings for electric appliances, machines, and equipment, automobiles and tools, books, posters, magazines, illustrations, advertisements, and digital information. This list, though hardly exhaustive, is sufficiently representative to demonstrate that design plays an integral part of each of our lives. It surrounds us in the home and office in the form of industrial equipment, products, and packaging, and bombards us with promotional images in the mass media.

A survey of three hundred years permits an appreciation of continuity as well as change, and the thoughtful consideration of both of these phenomena is a major theme of this book. It provides for the examination of the rich legacy of craft production, the creative use of natural materials and newer materials that have emerged as a result of industrial or digital technology, the discourse revolving around an artificial and often-contested duality between artist and artisan within the western tradition of the visual arts, the expanding market for the products of design, and the phenomenon of reform and standards as they attempt to regulate and inform that market.

Finally, the Age of Exploration, from the journeys of Columbus and other adventurers at the close of the fifteenth century to the voyages of Captain James Cook in the eighteenth century, created the basis for a cross-cultural fertilization that also forms an integral part of the history of modern design. The transformations in the craft industries that lie at the heart of Part I are, simply put, unthinkable without the economic and cultural interaction that transpired at that time between east and west. Awareness of new processes like the manufacture of porcelain and lacquer in Europe during the eighteenth century, of products like woven silk and cotton, of pastimes like tea-drinking, all pro­foundly affected the history of design through trade, competition, and travel, stimulating invention, marketing, and unprecedented commercial expansion on a new global scale.

One may also extend this theme further into history, for instance to the techniques of papermaking, invented in China, brought to southern Europe by Muslim civilization, and expanding in Europe with the invention of printing using moveable type in Germany in the fifteenth century.

More recently such expansion has come to include a wealth of new man-made industrial materials, processes, and information, from steel to titanium, plywood to plastic, and cotton to nylon, from wire to transistors, and from microprocessors to nanotubes. The research, development, and applications for these technologies depend upon far-reaching lines of communication stretching across geographic and linguistic barriers. Thus the history of modern design is indeed a "global" history, and it is important to recognize the interconnections between cultures both western and non-western.

The text and illustrations which follow attempt to suggest themes of resonance as well as change in the history of design from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. It is my hope that the selection and presentation of the material will encourage students to appreciate design and to examine the rela­tion of both unique and everyday objects to a variety of forces and influences that give them meaning.

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