Essays & Articles


A Product Is More than a Product — Consider the Chair

Essay for CRISP Magazine #5. Published by the Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. June 2015


Today, designers think of systems, of services, and of lasting relationships. Design has moved on from things like chairs and simple systems to larger more important stuff, working to improve things like those massive, complex, bureaucratic systems that seem suited for no one. It’s time for a manifesto. Hey – we have one. DesignX we called it, put together by a band of kindred souls from Delft, San Diego, Shanghai, and Swinburne. (Also see “Why DesignX.”) DesignX aims at relationships that might have hundreds or even thousands of interconnections, relationships that can last a lifetime while simultaneously changing with time.  It’s a worthy cause.

Chairs show up frequently in this issue of CRISP, so let’s consider the poor, lonely chair, once a staple of a designer’s portfolio. Even chairs can take part in DesignX, because the 21st century chair might be an active, dynamic device capable of complex relationships.

Imagine how the 21st century chair might perk up when guests arrive, autonomously transforming itself as needed. It can become a stepstool when someone needs to stand on it, or a bed, perhaps formed by enlisting other chairs so that they can to support a horizontal body or two or three. When self-organized into neat orderly rows of its collaborators, the chair can accommodate crowds. While awaiting the crowd’s arrival the chairs are a memory of the future, reminding us of the event that is to come. After they leave, the same chairs serve as a memory of the past.

Modern chairs will be intelligent, anthropomorphic, sensing, dynamic, capable of altering their shape, form, and function. Some chairs might come when called, others might lift people to reach high-up objects, and yet others might socialize with like-minded chairs, forming moving patterns across the room as they travel to wherever they might be most useful. These 21st century chairs are social, aiming to please. They will be active servants, relationship builders, and enablers of social interactions.

In the 21st century designers will produce many things besides chairs, many of which will not be objects. Some will be services and experiences, such as healthcare and wellness. Some will be ideas. Is an idea a thing, a product, a service? Whatever they are called, they need to be designed not as isolated things but as complex, interrelated systems, as total experiences. As relationships.

We design affordances to permit and encourage some activities, anti-affordances to discourage and prevent others. Anti-affordance? Yup, a term I invented for things deliberately designed to prevent an activity, such as barbed wire, or those nasty spikes on the top of fences, or little steel pieces on the edges of walls in public places meant to inhibit skateboarders from practicing their grinds and slides along the sides of curbs and railings, preventing those acrobatic, amazing gravity-defying spins and jumps, where the skateboard miraculously follows the feet as if attached, even though it isn’t.

Who designed the skateboard that makes such feats possible? I suspect the capability was discovered, not designed, but once discovered, from then on it was designed with careful attention to the details of the trucks, the curvature of the boards, and their springiness. So successful were the acrobatic behaviors these designs afforded that a new profession arose: designing against those affordances, designing anti-affordances to prevent the very activity that skateboarders love.

Sometimes it feels as if we, as designers, are in a duel, so that while we create marvelous devices capable of great intelligence, relationships, and creative expression, others work feverishly to deny these same characteristics.  Creative relationships? Yes, all very good, they seem to say, but please, not in my backyard, nor front yard, nor within visible sight or audible distance.

Anti-affordances are one of the tools of the opposing designers. Imagine a chair designed to prevent sitting. Chairs, some people claim, are bad for health: killer chairs, they are called. Sitting is unhealthy, goes the new mantra: stand when you eat, stand while you work, and in the meantime, just stand. So while one community of dueling designers will create masterful, intelligent, shape-changing dynamic chairs that offer comfortable support, others will introduce anti-affordances to prevent that unhealthy comfort.

Today’s designers may create ordinary chairs, but more and more we will all work on more complex things, some as radical as autonomous shape-forming chairs, but others more prosaic yet even more difficult, things such as healthcare or the way that automated cars might interact with drivers, passengers, pedestrians, bikers, and skateboarders. Even simple things can become complex sociotechnical systems.

A product is more than a product, it is a relationship that drives multiple relationships.