Perfect design

When all the traditional criteria are evoked

A column by Michael Erlhoff

1. Straightforwardly

For a very long time, very clear categories prevailed within design and likewise in the general understanding of design when it came to judging it as a success or a failure. There was even a time when the verdict was a very moral “good” or “bad” design. Given how that epoch saw itself and in part to this very day such criteria are considered unequivocal and unproblematic. That is also what they seem to be at first sight and it was thus easy for them to be generalized. As here, the focus is on an appropriate function, for example, meaning that exactly what you wished to achieve with the corresponding appliance or symbol than occurs exactly as imagined. Quite mechanically or automatically.

Efficiency was and still is another important criterion, meaning a cost-effective, swift and again unproblematic function. Moreover, worth of mention here are for example cleanliness, as products are supposed more to eliminate dirt than create it, or simplicity of use alongside ready comprehensibility – both of objects and of all symbols and media.

All of this can be summarized and often is summarized under the label ergonomics. Ergonomic means it serves people and is thus a human or at least comfortable design. And if everything is durable into the bargain, and can be manufactured relatively simply or at least plausibly, then the commentators consciously speak of a perfect design – which then wins the corresponding design prizes and public recognition.

That all sounds easy and comprehensible and is in line with the oft-quoted pronouncement that design solves problems and creates the respectively intended improvement to something.


2. Ambivalently

If one follows this list of criteria for good and successful design, one swiftly stumbles among countless others across one of the most famous US designers who back in the mid-1980s used precisely these criteria in a TV documentary to proudly present his design in public; it was incidentally a documentary that only included his own commentary on the products and thankfully no outside explanations, and was then broadcast in the early 1990s among others by “Spiegel TV”.

The designer in question is Frederick A. Leuchter (pronounced “liutshter”). Admittedly he actually is and certainly saw/sees himself as one of the most famous and most influential designers in his segment, although he has been as good as ignored in the broader design scene. Although, for many year he was the official “Electric Chair Designer USA”.

Frederick Leuchter designed and redesigned the electric chairs in many states of the Union that were used to carry out death sentences. And demonstratively relied on all those criteria that are generally used to judge “good design”.

This becomes very clear in said TV documentary. Leuchter’s description are constantly alluding to ergonomics and improving human conditions. He highlights the urgent need for efficiency, to make sure the execution happens with as few hitches as possible, i.e., precisely and swiftly. And comfortably for the person sitting on the electric chair. Leuchter insists they should be sitting comfortably, simply have the electrodes attached, and that it also be simple to remove the body afterwards.

The function has to be right. And everything needs to run smoothly and cleanly as there are witnesses following the execution and they must not be overly shocked by what they see. The chairs need to be cost-effective and easy to make without a great deal of special tooling. In the documentary Frederick Leuchter shows this in great detail, he even first places an electric cap (part of the entire system) on his own head, explains the problems with it and then very enthusiastically replaces it with his new design that fits much better. Moreover, and this is not least another category in defining “good design”, the piece he had created was also a lot more beautiful than the older version, simply more attractive. He even mentions durability, although he no doubt only meant the device. So better overall, clear progress.

Everything in the documentary is quite logical, and Frederick Leuchter even turns out to be a collector of excellent design, something typical of many a designer be it something they openly say or not. We see him open the door to his design museum full of bits of such devices, including complete electric chairs and all the things you need to go with them. Proudly, himself impressed by what he sees.

Indeed, at one point Frederick Leuchter was so successful in the United States in his trade that he was commissioned by the Justice Dept. in various states to handle the redesign of gas chambers and facilities where the convicts were to be executed by lethal injection. These were jobs he assiduously completed and for which he received great financial rewards, as he did overall – and received a lot of publicity. Because everything he designed back then was doubtless precise, made economic sense and corresponds to this day to the notion of perfect design. His designs were functional, ergonomic, durable, efficient, clean, and attractive, and even became collectors’ items.

Which leaves us simply with the depressing insight that those criteria for “good” design that are so often banded about are by no means without significance even if they are pitiful. If one does not bear in mind for what functionality everything is intended, then the categories simply attest to the deplorable state of design and of general assessments of design.
And another note in passing for the insiders: All of this is firmly in line with the current research flavor of the month, Bruno Latour’s “Actor Network Theory / ANT”, although it does not get mentioned as a problem by him or his apologists. Which among other things simply goes to show the essential banality, lack of meaning and antiquated façade the theory has.

Leaving us to remark on Frederick A. Leuchter’s biography: He was born on February 7, 1943, the son of a prison officer, got a BA in the Humanities at Boston University in 1964 and then by whatever dubious means acquired the knowledge of an expert executioner – as the engineer and designer of executions. Not until the 1990s did his star wane in the United States, too, when it became known that in 1988 he had authored a purportedly academic report on behalf of some institution or other (it is still unclear which one) to prove scientifically that no gas was used in the Nazi death camps. At least that ruined his career.

However, his career is otherwise quite astonishing. As his drastic and highly complex design elaborations and his strident self-confidence should have long since clearly highlighted the contradictions both of his actions and of the related notions of design. But, like so much in design and elsewhere, that simply got repressed. As the criteria were the right ones.


3. Retrospectively

When in the early 1990s as one of my weekly lectures at the Köln International School of Design / KISD I screened this TV documentary in full, turned on my heel and wanted to leave the lecture theater, the 150-odd students simply remained seated and told me that they would on the spot all stop studying design unless there was not a more thorough discussion. That debate then ensues, and very intense it was, and they all kept studying.

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. Since 2016 he teaches as an honorary professor at the Braunschweig University of Fine Arts.