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Monday, January 25, 2016

Designs for the Future (from the Past)

The future as seen in the 1960s. What's wrong with this picture? What did the artist get right?
During the next few weeks and months I plan to explore the work of those artist/designers who are brave enough to attempt to predict the future and design that which they foresee. In large part, I've already done that in the realm of architecture and to a lesser degree, automobiles, two of the most common areas of design prognostication, so I'll not rehash those two areas, but instead delve into designs of less common items. However, it is totally foolish to try predicting the future without studying the past, not so much what worked in the past but what didn't. Where did design predictions miss their mark and why? Why do we still wear three-button suits that would not have been notably strange looking a hundred years ago? Why do we all not zip around too and fro with jet packs strapped to our backs...or belts? Why do so few cities not have Disney designed monorails for mass transit? Why do we not receive food from restaurants to eat at home via pneumatic tubes? And why did no one in the past predict the digital revolution and design laptop computers accordingly? What is it that influences the design future?
What happened here?  Why didn't this design..."fly"?
Why aren't we eating designer
strawberries as big as your fist?
Basically, these influences are not all that mysterious. There are limited to only four. First and foremost are basic scientific breakthroughs (the transistor, for example).  Second has to do with economic or cost break-throughs (the automobile, for exam-ple). The third is social change (women in the workforce, for ex-ample). The fourth such influence upon future design is advertising (the electric razor, for example). Never do these factors operated independ-ently. The automobile came as a re-sult of the internal combustion engine. The cost of building them came down due to mass production. The sheer number of them sold has had a lot to do with the needs and income associated with there being two breadwinners in most families. And advertising served to accelerated and consolidate the impact of all these elements. Cars look today like flashy metal jellybeans because of scientific breakthroughs in aerodynamics, leading to streamlining, which led to lower operating costs, which led to computer generated designs suggesting a single "perfect" shape deemed to be efficient, yet attractive to the consumer as promoted in all forms of advertising media.
Skype from the 1880s. Right idea, wrong design.
Probably more than anything else, the "look" of the future has a great deal to do with infrastructure. Automobiles led to paved roads. Paved roads led to faster cars and less "clunky" designs. Faster cars led to freeways. Freeway and the vehicles on them led to suburban sprawl. Suburban sprawl led to cracker-box single-family bungalows, "ranch" style homes, and overcrowded highways, which led to city center core redevelopment featuring contemporary, high-rise living spaces near similar work spaces. If you want to get still more basic, it's not a great stretch to say that all this came about when steel replaced cast iron in building engine blocks allowing a portable fuel like gasoline to power millions of tiny, nearly simultaneous,(but powerful) explosions without blowing that which housed them to smithereens. Once the costly super highways were in place, even Walt Disney's futuristically design monorails couldn't revitalize mass transit with it's erratic timetables, lack of privacy, and inconvenience (except in congested areas where those highways could no longer grow to meet drivers' needs).
Future design is always a mixed bag, somewhat better, somewhat
worse than the present; yet in many ways, surprisingly similar.
Japanese bikini jeans
So, if you're painting a picture of the future, erase the past. Erase all forms of mass transit. Erase jet packs and egg-shaped personal vehicles. Draw your buildings taller, add more trees to cleanse the air, pile on the robotics and information technology, layer clothing, minimize the outlandish, eroticize to your heart's content (left); sex has a way of driving technology and science. Most of all, keep in mind the four influences having to do with designing the future: science/techno-logy, economics, social changes, and informational overload. Futuristic de-sign follows all these factors, it does not lead them. Ten-lane super high-ways bordered by electronic, ani-mated billboards were not designed so Henry Ford would have a place to drive his Model-T.

Why was this vision of the future so slow in coming?
What happened to the bubble-top?
What? No seatbelts?

A flying cruise ship from the 1960s.
Another idea that didn't fly (thank God).


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