New challenges facing product designers present opportunities

BEIRUT: Product design is, at its core, about providing a functional thing that fills a need. Take for example one of contemporary design’s most successful products: the iPhone. “They’ve successfully created a middleman between two humans, just like a priest connects a human to God,” said Cyrille Najjar, designer and architect behind White Sur White.

Product design is in a state of rapid change as technology creates both challenges and opportunities for designers. Three top Lebanese product designers and Niko Koronis, a Greek architect and designer, debated the challenges this rapid change poses at a public round table hosted by Eklekta Gallery in Sin al-Fil.

Increasing interest in customized design is forcing designers to give consumers a greater hand in shaping their creations than ever before.

While it’s good for consumers to have a greater say, customization presents a new challenge for designers: listening to consumer input.

“They need to remain open to this,” Najjar said.

Koronis compared contemporary design to cooking, where anyone can take the recipe and adjust the ingredients and method.

While the poor have always customized by recycling old things for new purposes, and “the rich are customizing because they have too many resources,” Najjar said, “the group in the middle now has 3-D printing, which is allowing us to customize everything.”

The Web has also expanded the possibilities for consumer input. With smartphone applications and online product catalogs, for example, consumers can rate a product and write feedback.

Technology presents design with other challenges. Today’s connected world is bombarded by new products all the time, Koronis said. “It’s fundamental for [designers] to take a step back and address what is good and what is bad.”

With nearly every idea in the world just a few clicks away, the Internet makes it easy for designers to copy or lazily research ideas.

“These days, it’s very easy to do a superficial analysis,” said Marc Baroud, head of the design department at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts. “We need to be really careful to give our students tools to do proper research.”

While youths need to learn the old way, older designers need to learn the new techniques as technological innovation has become an essential tool in design, designer Marc Dibeh said.

Like a stormy day, technology presents new, unavoidable conditions for designers.

“Are you going to take an umbrella, or a hoodie?” Dibeh asked.

“Or are you going to dance naked in the rain!” Koronis interjected.

Baroud said collaboration was the key to navigating the storm.

“The rapid change is impossible to handle. I’m not a geek, I’m not very good at computers ... in fact, I hate it,” he said. “But I work with people who do it.”

Where there are challenges, there are opportunities, it seems.

“This shift creates a whole new opportunity for Lebanon. Until now, it could not play a central role,” Koronis said.

Local designers are turning online to promote and fund new product ideas and Lebanese are responsible for hundreds of new phone apps. Its wealth of artisans and small-scale industries positions Lebanon well for product customization.

Even poor security provides opportunities for local design.

“Everything that exists here is collapsing or never existed to begin with, there are plenty of needs with which new products, new technologies can fill,” Najjar said.

And necessity is the mother of all invention.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 10, 2014, on page 2.




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