Chris O’Neil: Take a brand new look at which products get our money

Good design deserves to be rewarded, argues Professor Chris O’Neil
Professor Chris ONeil is Head of Gray's School of Art at Robert Gordon University. Picture: Creative CommonsProfessor Chris ONeil is Head of Gray's School of Art at Robert Gordon University. Picture: Creative Commons
Professor Chris ONeil is Head of Gray's School of Art at Robert Gordon University. Picture: Creative Commons

Too often, “design” is equated to the aesthetics of a “thing” while ignoring the processes that led to that “thing”. Good design is the considered and most correct response to a problem and involves every stage of the thing’s life cycle. I consider plastic water bottles a catastrophically bad design solution for the planet but the perfect solution for corporations that care about bottling process, efficient distribution, marketing and unit sales. Consider this: in 2010 the UK consumed more than 2 billion litres of bottled water, most of which had been packaged into around 275,000 tonnes of plastic. Only around 10 per cent of that plastic was recycled and much of that plastic was polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic that is championed as safe by some and as a danger to personal health by others. Universal advice is that we use the bottles once for consumption and dispose, because there is a risk of any refill being contaminated by DEHA. This chemical can leach from the bottle into its contents and causes cancers in mice, but not rats. This is bad for mice of course, but even if they are the only species impacted, does this justify the UK spending in excess of £1.3 billion a year on a “convenienced” product that is just as good when it comes out of our taps whilethe designed packaging solution has always been destined to be thrown into landfill or clog up the Sargasso sea?

Ross Lovegrove’s plastic Ty Nant water bottle is beautiful. It flows and undulates and is the product of a mind that can sculpt and form effortlessly. He once told me the bottle must be full to be properly appreciated. Feeling the full weight and temperature of the contained water is a part of the experience. Nice, but the problem is, most water bottles sit empty for over 400 years.

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Sir Jonathan Ive is another designer who makes his work appear effortless, essential and beautiful. But I see the iPhone as brilliant not because of the aesthetic but because it sits at the heart of a system. Independent App developers have free access to iPhone coding and communication companies finance the consumer purchase. The iPhone has achieved the Holy Grail; mass-produced exclusivity. While car manufactures charge for mass produced options so that the customer believes their car is unique rather than a variation on a theme, the iPhone is a blank affordable canvas that has almost limitless variations. Intuitive interfaces, supported by the Genius Bars and a brilliantly targeted lifestyle advertising campaign, tells the consumer they are “cool” because they are unique.

But, it is difficult to ignore the ethical dilemmas that Apple is now addressing in China. Unit manufacturing cost is king but production must be a design consideration within the design process, as is disposal. The iPhone passes on its contents to its iPhone successor and other Apple-related products, locking the consumer in to the brand. All very clever, but the obsolescence of the iPhone is not only defined by battery life, electrical or mechanical failure but by the lifestyle marketing campaign. Never underestimate the power of “cool”, just look at those crowds outside the Apple Stores on the dawn of a world-wide release. The iPhone is an amazing thing but I don’t like that the consumer’s loyalty is to a short term aesthetic that is designed to be rejected, unloved and no longer cool. However, I love my RM Williams black Chelsea Boots. They are mass manufactured by medium-sized Australian Company who have strong commitments to their workers and community. The upper is made from a single piece of leather and every part of the boot can be replaced. They look timeless and are great. My pair are more than ten years old, I wear them five days a week and with the support of Timpsons – one of the UK’s best companies, I have regular new soles and heels. I can’t think of a better-designed pair of black shoes. I admire the company and total design process that led to my boots. They look great and have a great story.

I cannot see the point of the same sterile “designer stores” at every airport and city centre with global price points and the rejected offerings consigned to “designer” outlet parks. Our material needs and wants can be serious or frivolous, so ask yourself this, is the “thing” you are about to purchase, regardless of cost, good enough to become an heirloom and reflect your values to future generations? If it is, it may well be a candidate for ‘good design’.

• Professor Chris O’Neil is Head of Gray’s School of Art at Robert Gordon University