“What does good design mean today?” is the question that opened MoMA’s recent exhibition, The Value of Good Design.  This theme becomes present as one strolls around the rich showcase of well-designed, mid-century products, from household goods and furniture, to graphics and electronics. Considering it is the third time since the 1930s that this exhibition has been on view, this question holds even more importance. Initially, MoMA’s Good Design initiative was a way for cultural institutions to sell the positive message of progress and industry through designed objects.

This question also resonates in reading John Maeda’s Design in Tech Report 2019, and his sudden disagreement with design-led companies. Maeda suggests designers are at risk of creating exclusive and unapproachable forms of communication, and are too heavily focused on the visual aspect of their designs, rather than taking into account the humans that will be interacting with their products. He believes they have an unapproachable understanding of what good design looks like, based on a privileged history and experience. Maeda therefore suggests design-leadership might alienate other disciplines, when everyone should be working together, something he sees as especially problematic in a business environment.

Installation view, The Value of Good Design at the MoMa
Installation view, The Value of Good Design at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (February 10–June 15, 2019). Digital image © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: John Wronn

Retrospect for life

The exhibition shows how this microworld view is focused on the crafted visuals, rather than communicating something deeper and human. Take for example Charles and Ray Eames’ Glimpse of the U.S.A film. Produced in 1959, it depicts a utopian perspective of America. It portrays vignettes from everyday American life: people dancing, baseball games, horse races, the beach, churchgoers, children playing and even mundane scenes of people eating ice cream.

The images are shot in a documentary fashion, with the subjects in their natural environment doing humdrum things and rarely noticing they are being filmed. As viewers, we are on the outside looking at them, mirroring a National Geographic feature.

Unlike nature documentaries, however, that try to show as much of the subject’s natural setting as possible, these images are tightly cropped to celebrate and capture an image of American progress and happy life that can only be achieved by mass consumerism.

Referencing Pop Art methods, these images are repeated across the seven screens, which, as a video piece, makes the transmission of these images to the masses easy and pervasive. In this work, we do not see the mess, chaos, sadness or pain that are part of those Americans’ everyday lives. Viewing this work today, the message seems to be saying, at least on the surface, that the American Dream is a life of progress, happiness, and is a result of Good Design and industry. Under its veneer, however, it is sterile and unrealistic.

A lithograph print of a typewriter by Giovanni Pintori
Giovanni Pintori (Italian, 1912–1999). Olivetti Lexikon. 1954. Lithograph, 27 3/4 × 19 1/2″ (70.5 × 49.5 cm). Printed by Industrie Grafiche N. Moneta S.p.A. (Milan, Italy). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designer. © Olivetti S.p.A. and the Estate of Giovanni Pintori. Digital image © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York
A graph showing that most designers believe AI will take over their roles.
“88% of designers surveyed believe that it will be at least five years until visual designers are replaced by AI. AI can already do a lot right now”, from John Maeda’s Design in Tech Report

Designing for humans

The “microworld of aesthetic high-fives” that Maeda describes has become standard in the digital era. In products and services, we experience sleek, high-quality and frictionless levels of interaction. Algorithms and machine learning help predict and anticipate our next moves so we do not have to think. It makes one wonder if we are actually making any choices at all. As designers polish everything to an incredible shine, it becomes harder to see the human factor.

Similarly, a Japanese Mitsubishi poster in the middle of the Good Design exhibit illustrates a woman wearing a bright orange dress crouched over a slick and refined Mitsubishi sewing machine. Her face is drawn with soft brush strokes, contrasting the sewing machine’s crisp lines and smooth shapes. The touchpoint between the two is interesting: as her hands and torso connect with the machine, they, too, are rendered in a clear, smooth style. Her hands echo the machinery – becoming one with it. The Mitsubishi logo in the corner is just as large as the sewing machine and reinforces the message that this is an advertisement for Mitsubishi, should the viewer forget.

This poster,just like the other objects displayed in the exhibition, exudes values from the intersection of design, industrialization and the mass production of consumer goods. The representation of the machine has a touch of divinity to it; humanity among machine.

Mitsubishi Sewing Machine silkscreen by Hiroshi Ohchi
Hiroshi Ohchi (Japanese, 1908–1974). Mitsubishi Sewing Machine. c. 1950s. Silkscreen, 28 1/4 × 20″ (71.8 × 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designer. © 2017 Hiroshi Ohchi. Digital image © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The influence of industrialization and mechanization is also apparent in the textiles. However, unlike the poster and video, which are displayed in public places, Lucienne Day’s textile pieces are meant to occupy the domestic space, making the ethos of good design in her pieces much more commonplace and personal. In the exhibition, her two works, Spectators (1953) and Mezzanine (1958), are displayed as long pieces of printed, hanging fabric, even though they were originally used for furnishing. The fabrics are covered by large swathes of color interspersed with abstract shapes.

In Spectators, there is a vertical composition of humanoid shapes referencing heads, torsos and legs. In Mezzanine, there are three columns stacked with horizontal boxes connected by drawn lines. The edges of the shapes in Spectators are smooth, while Mezzanine’s boxes have a soft, feathered quality as if painted with a dry brush.

The pattern arrangements of both fabrics strongly reference a typical Bauhaus composition, using an implied grid structure and rhythmic placing of objects. The smoothly rendered shapes are peppered with hand-drawn-like doodles that echo the graphic treatments in the Mitsubishi poster. However, the doodles are definitely much more playful. They imply a sense of aspiration and positive thinking.

Screenprint by Lucienne Day
Lucienne Day (British, 1917­–2010). Mezzanine. 1958. Screenprinted cotton crepe, 95 1/2 × 48 1/4″ (242.6 × 122.6 cm). Manufactured by Heal Fabrics (London, United Kingdom, est. 1810). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jill A. Wiltse and H. Kirk Brown III. Digital image © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar
Installation view, The Value of Good Design at the MoMa
Installation view, The Value of Good Design at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (February 10–June 15, 2019). Digital image © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: John Wronn

Copy, paste, design, repeat

Aesthetically speaking, the work in the exhibition can be described as smooth, slick, balanced, rounded, sturdy and functional. However, beyond aesthetics, it demonstrates the power of combining the Bauhaus philosophy of form following function with Pop Art’s mass production, resulting in products that optimize the function, value and appearance for both the user and manufacturer.

These values were propagandized by cultural institutions and governments around the world to elicit a positive aura from industrialization. Their influence was so far reaching, they could be described as being omnipresent.

Today, good design is the standard experience in the digital world. Websites, in particular, often follow UX heuristics and use standardized UI components. As we expect a similar experience from site to site, web experiences become more homogenous. It’s a copy, paste and repeat system, much like Pop Art. But instead of soup cans, the site is the product.

Installation view, The Value of Good Design at the MoMa
Installation view, The Value of Good Design at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (February 10–June 15, 2019). Digital image © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: John Wronn
A graph showing the frequency of smartphone use per hour
״In a world in which we check our phones every five minutes, good user experience design is crucial,״ from John Maeda’s Design in Tech Report

As designers, we have an opportunity to shift this expectation. We need to reimagine the future of “good design” beyond just beautiful visuals, or we risk mass production of websites. By being conscious of a designer’s tendency to create a “microworld of aesthetic high-fives,” we have the opportunity to celebrate humanness –  the mess, the mistakes and the feelings.

Thinking back to the Mitsubishi poster, the woman, while wearing hair curlers, leans over the sewing machine. You could imagine a back story to her situation: Is she in a rush to mend a dress that she’s wearing to dinner? Is she repairing her children’s clothes as they are running late to school? The poster becomes much more than an advertisement for the sewing machine; it becomes an enriched story about us and our relationship to technology.