Design rules
A column by Erlhoff Michael
Nov 17, 2015

Rules, regulations, instructions – who decides on what is to be designed – and how?

It is inevitable that we recognize the high level of creativity of those working in jurisprudence. For they are vociferous formalists: those scrambling about in the legislative and those articulating themselves within the scope of jurisdiction and yet, when push comes to shove, are prepared to fight one another. In the spirit of Aristotle, one would almost be inclined to describe them as masters of poetry, even if the majority of them wouldn’t like the ascription.

For the law is written and enforced in the realm of grammar and dictionaries. Outstanding precision in the choice of words and their interpretation is a must. Sure, on occasion this also involves the use of secret codes or of semantic fields potentially arcane for the public. On the other hand, such a poetic concoction will enable those who are not among the immediate inner circle an opportunity to articulate literal flights of fancy and therefore sow confusion in the event of a legal battle.

This most definitely has a lot to do with design and equally with architecture, both of which are closely bound up with poetry, in the above-mentioned sense of Aristotle. On top of which it is these precisely that tend to come under heavy attack from the very lawmakers and other legal experts which offers yet another argument why jurisprudence is decidedly not one of the liberal arts.

That is the extent to which one can act. Because the real tragedy for the field of design, and equally for architecture, is the diverse abundance of legal decrees destined to determine anything and everything that may take a direct effect on the design process. As it is, we all (and peculiarly this includes those working in design and architecture), tend to underestimate that the majority of design is likely to be the product of the law, or has been impeded by such drastic limitations that hardly allow any creative scope. Another appalling fact is that designers hardly broach the issue in public and never complain.

To take an obtrusive example that even the non-smokers among us will be able to appreciate at once: Today the packaging of cigarettes and indeed cigars is basically distorted by those monstrous stickers or prints warning users of the damages caused by smoking. Just think of Raymond Loewy’s famous design for “Lucky Strike”. Conceived in the early 1940s, the packaging became a true design icon and for decades it was an expression of the power of a brand and its creative concept. And today? Today massive black-and-white writing is slapped right on the packaging design, destroying the very essence of its composition. This is possibly why the institute in question, BAT, decided to become quite impartial to the quality of the design and launch a woeful redesign of the packaging. The same can be said for the packaging of other cigarette brands (noticeably, for instance, “Camel”) and cigars (“Cohiba”). An example that is less drastic but equally as shocking is the overabundance of information on all sorts of ingredients displayed on the packaging of foodstuffs.

Admittedly, this information does have some relevance. And yet, would it not be a smart idea to get designers on board who are capable of dreaming up new, indeed smarter solutions for the presentation of this information, ideas that blend with the overall design in the way that the comments are destined to catch the eye but are nevertheless integrated into the packaging design?

Let’s take a different example: A European regulation that no one can get round stipulates quite unequivocally that office and swivel chairs must have five-star bases. This sounds sensible because, as we all know, it’s great fun wobbling and tilting on a four-star base, but mind you, there is always the danger of falling over. That’s why every piece of office seating furniture must be equipped with the five-star version nowadays. Utter nonsense. I can think of plenty of other ways to prevent people from crashing with their chairs. It’s not that difficult to come up with alternative solutions. But no, it has to be at least a five-star base.

There are countless other examples – in fact the list is endless. The automotive industry clearly suffers under this legislation just as doe the technical appliances or architecture industries. The situation becomes even more drastic when different bodies start to encroach on the situation. Can you think of any legal administration that does not like to demonstrate its power or indeed red-tape mentality by employing precisely such decrees? Below the EU level there are all the national and regional lawmakers and their henchmen who like to have their say in things. The result: the standardization of luminaires, handgrips, roof configurations, and so on and so forth.

Now we could try and defend those laws by pointing to the fact that particular rules are necessary to prevent hazards, keep potential risks at bay, and avoid chaos situations. Without any rules in place, companies and designers alike would end up producing a hodgepodge of stuff, keen to increase their profits or enforce their rough-and-ready concepts. Not that there is anything wrong with that, for the free play of market forces is hardly ideally suited to creating flexibility or even justice.

Yet no matter how hard we try to embrace the situation, it remains a problem. Which on closer inspection reveals itself to be an underlying structural issue. The legislative and with it all those working in the field of rules and regulations only know one thing, and that is quantitative measures. They simply stipulate an item has to have a five-star base or eight holes or supports of the one or other thickness, or that such and such has to be articulated in this size or that format. They will always only state the figures to which we then all have to adhere. It is as if quantity is not something that can be debated or at least negotiated, but lays down hard and fast rules. As if numbers could always be clearly defined.

What those prescribing the rules are so obviously unaware of or incapable of embracing or reluctant to trust is – a sense of quality. Why is it not possible simply to say that office chairs must not fall over under such and such conditions? Or explain that information on packaging has to be clearly legible and intelligible, and that could include defining conditions for clarity and comprehensibility? The information presented in such a way would certainly not detract from the design proper; quite on the contrary, it would encourage and inspire designers to present such qualitative information in the best possible way.

One might argue that there may be differences in interpretation as to the scope of such quality. However, this has always been part and parcel of defining quantities too.

So the reasoning is clear: It is high time we finally created a dimension of something that perhaps should no longer be referred to as a regulation but is, within the scope of defining something, namely concepts of quality, both plausible and reasonable.

Now this may sound simple, but considering the state of affairs at those bodies responsible for formulating these laws, it is definitely pie in the sky.

That said, it’s important we applied this just as much to the designers themselves, and perhaps the architects too. For by and large people are notorious for their passion (thankfully!) to circumvent with utmost inventiveness any rule that annoys them. We are familiar with this from our daily lives and habits. We all find shortcuts to paths the prescribed in parks and other green spaces, we all tend to ignore countless official decrees and, feeling limited by rules we deem silly and entirely superfluous, will go to great lengths to break out, circumvent them, and find our own solutions.

Yet how does this apply to design and architecture? Don’t we need precisely these flights of fancy, as the very expression of creativity or intelligence or common sense, to be able to deal with the law in a relaxed, open and prudent manner and to correct, amend and open it up as necessary?

Let’s face it: Isn’t this the fundamental essence of design? And for as long as the legislation fails to comprehend the importance of formulating notions of quality, those empowered to do so should finally dare take this step. For the sake of jurisprudence.

Michael Erlhoff

He is an author, design theorist, corporate consultant, curator and organizer; he has been, among other things, CEO of the German Design Council, Advisory Council member of documenta 8 and Founding Dean (and until 2013 professor at) of the Köln International School of Design/KISD. Erlhoff was founder of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, is a founding member of the German Society of Design Theory and Research and as a visiting professor heads projects and workshops at universities in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney.