Karim Rashid : Democratic Design

Karim Rashid at Albright Knox

On a rainy evening at the Albright Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY), an internationally reknown designer gave a free lecture on democratic design. Enter Karim Rashid: A popular Industrial Designer and self-acclaimed cultural provocateur. Born in Cairo in 1960, Karim is half Egyptian, half English, and was raised in Canada while he now practices in New York. His perspective and clients are global and his projects range from products, interiors, fashion, furniture, lighting, art and music to installations. You’ve probably seen his work in everyday products such as method’s line of cleaning agents as well as home goods at Target.

Karim talked about democratic design. By democractic design, Karim means design that is made accessible to the people. He talks about the convergence of smart design that is within the constraints of the same amount of resources required for the production of an object’s present form. Think of it as high end design for mass market. He believed that if freedom were a form, it would be a fluid transportable organic thing. Artists that work within reality are the ones who create demographic design, which is important in terms of affordance and accessibility. In industrial design, the goal should really be to humanize objects by re-making them relevant to our times, instead of remaining iconic (e.g. why do the chair, table, bicycle remain the way they were since their earliest existence). A good example is our mobile phones. Our telephone did not change in its form yet it was the mobile phone woke us up with new possibilities such as customizable ring tones and cover designs.

He defines design as working in the first order. Design is involved directly with the key issue. Style comes through as an artifact of this design process. For example, during the 16th century, the making of tartan fabric requires carding and combing the wool to smooth out the tangled fibres, spinning and colouring the yarn which then goes on a winding machine which winds the threads onto a bobbin and a creel and warp wheel as it sets out the thread in the correct order for the tartan pattern. This pattern was in the making of the clothing because of the technology of that time. Karim believe there is a social need to update forms to reflect our movement through time. He suggests that the present day technology inspires infostatics, where beautiful styles lie in information. By letting new technology inspire the style, our information age can be reflected through our everyday things. For example, he created a home where the bathroom had sensors on the floor to pick up an individual’s biometric data, and then displays a readout of the individual’s weight and blood pressure on the bathroom mirror. The toilet bowl even has a laser which analyzes the person’s faeces in order to determine the health of a person. Such was infostatics. This inspiration stems from how the virtual world and its possibility influence us to reassess the real world, which eventually makes us more aware of our physical objects. You would get this feeling after watching a cool movie. As you walk out of the cinema, you suddenly realize that you are back in a boring world.

Another reflection of our information age is how the world is becoming more casual (traditional formal design were not comfortable). In fact, there has been a worldwide decline in the dry cleaning industry. The decline in demand for dry-cleaning services is directly related to changes in fashion and lifestyles. There has been a growth in cheap, easy-care fabrics and casual clothing and a move away from expensive wool, cotton and silk garments, which require specialised care. The trend towards casual standards of dress in the workplace and for social occasions has also had a negative impact on the demand for dry-cleaning services. Men are no longer wearing ties (tie making industry lost millions in sales over time), and all this is ultimately an expression of human freedom.

SemiramisA complaint on why we need change can be better understood if we recall that it us as humans who created the straight line, and so we render ourselves to live in the cartesian grid. The design of a chair is a great example of this point. Given the earlier engineering of joints, we have lived with the way a chair has right angled corners. Our backs are not naturally in that right angle, thus it would not be right for us to sit in it. We are organic and so to reconsider the chair in our life, there is a need to have a more fluid flow to accomodate the human being. He suggests using pressure molding as a means to produce furniture that removes the need for right angled joints. In this way, the design would then fulfill its true need.

The information age informs us so much that the retail industry cannot survive if they stick with traditional way of selling goods. In his travels, Karim sees the push to personalization through customization (something we noted as one of the Information Edges). He suggested that cheap LEDs be embedded on plane seats with passengers’ names on them. In the same notion, he designed the
Semiramis Hotel Athens (Greece) which features personal LEDs on the floor, just in front of your door. For the LEDs, you could type anything creative from your room’s QWERTY keyboard such as “Do not disturb”, “Please tidy room” or “Sexy & Single… Please Knock”. He tells us to think beyond the given and to allow for human experiences such as “humor” to be inbuned in technology. Such things can positively affect our human behavior.

In a similar way, we now have personalized fit and design on clothing such as Nike shoes, Levi’s Jeans and so on. Given our new technology, there is nothing to stop the non-serialized production of goods. This allows for variation, which I see as fitting to how no two people are exactly the same. In a more extreme sense, Karim said he saw how kids in tokyo now have a toy that allows them to fabricate their own cars using their home computer. Rapid prototyping is doing for us what desktop publishing did for us versus the printing press. Instead of merely producing two-dimensional works in desktop publishing, we are now able to express our ideas in three-dimensions. This is what Karim terms as Desktop Manufacturing.

In terms of economics and the human condition, this shift towards rapid customizable robotic-based production allows for blue collar workers to move into white collar positions (See Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave), which is more natural since humans should be doing what they do best, that is to think and behave creatively, rather than to act in a routine mechanized manner.

Such innovation in convergence can manifest in ways beyond objects. Google is an excellent case of fluidity in technology and education. He see the educator’s key role as imbuning passion of the subject in students, and letting technology such as the Internet supplement that role.

To summarize his overall notion of being relevant to our times, Karim said that nothing should be owned. In Japan, building are torn down every 15 years and rebuilt. In Amsterdam, you can ride a bike and leave it somewhere for someone else to ride elsewhere (known as city bicycles). In American, 50% of people no longer own cars but instead leased them. This idea that nothing is forever should be reflected in how everything is temporary.

2 thoughts on “Karim Rashid : Democratic Design

  1. I bought method’s dish soap because I thought it looked cool. I also wanted to try something different because the other stuff is too harsh. But method doesn’t clean my dishes or my sink very well. šŸ™ Sounds like it was an interesting talk!

  2. Karim also told us that the first 50,000 of method’s dish soap bottles had bad custom-made valves which leaked. I guess there is always a risk in doing anything new. šŸ™‚

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