The fourth dimension of design

Humanics: The fourth dimension of design

Pulos, Arthur J

Industrial design is concerned with the universal products of survival rather than the unique products of personal expression. Therefore, the path to social equity is through industrial design as a commitment to human service beyond the cod touch of technology, the predatory grasp of commerce , and the every embrace of aesthetics.

Although the obligation of technology is to transform knowledge into practical applications that serve the needs of humans and satisfy their desires, there is some doubt whether the end products, when directed to human service, are always as benevolent as they might be. In fact, on occasion it seems that the consumer, rather than the product is being led to market to be sold. Despite the efforts of industrial designers to create an environment that is humane, disenchantment with the quality of life in technologically advanced nations seems to be increasing. To some extent the fault may be that of those industrial designers who see themselves as agents of their clients rather than as servants of the public’s best interest. Industrial design is, or should be considered to be, a profession rather than an occupation.

Industrial designers must recognize that people are more important than products, and that their preoccupation with sales over service may constitute the most serious challenge to their professional position in society and the enduring value of their contributions to the public welfare and the economy in general. Some designers have made a pseudoscience out of marketable aesthetics by developing, for or with their clients, market-conditions programs with impressive methodologies to establish an aura of rationality. The presumption is that, with this as a substitute for personal judgment, they and their clients may avoid responsibility for the product-‘s behavior in promotional media and in the marketplace and the effect of the product on public welfare. Also, a cloak of anonymity often covers journeymen designers who are turned on like machines to give form to a product whose formula has been determined by others. In the process, product design becomes a game that anyone can play.

This rather harsh observation does not exclude those designers who are artists in a business suit and who see the manufactured product as an aesthetic challenge upon which they may exercise their unique personal talent. This observation does not include those few stars of the industrial design profession whose perceptive sensitivity to the world around them is the envy of pedestrian designers who by emulation, conscious or unconscious, fall into step towards whatever direction is pointed out to them.

Manufactured products are designed for consumption. Thus, any product that is on a higher plane than any subversive attempts at artificial obsolescence has a natural life expectancy. Whatever the product is, it is conceived to provide a temporal equilibrium that balances the technology which brings it into being with the quality of human service it provides. One must also acknowledge that products may be consumed in a symbolic sense because the preferences and tastes of people reflect social and cultural values that are in constant flux.


Today’s products express the ferment in design at academic as well as at professional levels that is developing a new formalism. Products may still depend upon elemental geometry to give them physical form as well as psychological and aesthetic value because the education of designers is only now beginning to embrace the computer. The revolution is, however, underway, with a shift in design theory and practice from the mechanical and hand arts to those of the mind. Many of the design schools have installed computer facilities that are displacing traditional craft and machine workshops. One hopes that designers may now leave elemental geometry for the richer forms of the future that absorb sophisticated technology without losing their analog relationship with the user. However, as long as design is practiced as an art with products honored primarily for artistic qualities, humanistic values will continue to be suppressed.

All industrial designers should aspire to be surrogates for the public’s best interest. Incontestably, industrial design at its highest level is a service profession, and such sales that result will be because the product has fulfilled a human need or desire with distinction. Beyond all that is the private hope that if the product has genuine merit, it is embedded in the work to be treasured for other qualities after function has been consumed.

The system of open competition under which companies operate in the modern world is entirely in line with the philosophy that everyone is entitled to an equal opportunity to make his or her product or service known to the public. By its very nature this equity adds to the cacophony and the duplication of promotional marketing media that are not unlike, one may suppose, the public markets of earlier civilizations. Witness the confusion that arises today when a successful product whose uniqueness is protected by law first attracts competitors seeking to test and then invade the other’s legal patent protection. And then, failing that, they are obliged to design a better product. This result, being the primary objective of the patent system in the United States, invariably leads to successive generations of better and better products. In such a climate of open competition it may even stimulate superficial styling and other pretenses of progress that will, however, eventually be displaced by progress that is more genuine

One of the most challenging results of an expanding economy is that both maker and buyer must adapt to rapidly changing marketing practices. For example, the shift from personal to impersonal marketing has made more aggressive package design imperative as products are being increasingly left alone to sell themselves to print and video media and/or to fend for themselves on shelves in supermarkets for consumables or among piles of boxes in discount houses for durable products. In the process, packaging has gone beyond simple information to an emphasis on more persuasive graphic design and other devices that make the consumer the target rather than the beneficiary of design. Moreover, the storage and disposal of the now useless packaging materials is made the responsibility of the consumer at home.

The public has been so conditioned by depersonalized knowledge — to the idea that facts and things are more important than people — that recognizing and accepting their common obligation to other human beings is the first step required of those involved in the manufacture and merchandising of products to put a human face on technology and marketing. Recognizing that people out there need respectful attention and empathy from the physicist and the engineer, from the psychologist and the promoter and marketer, as well as the sympathetic respect of electronic and print media, is fundamental to a more responsible design service.

Industries, understandably, develop and manufacture products following certain physical, performance, and aesthetic criteria that promise to be attractive to a carefully researched market. It is logical to expect that manufacturers and promoters will direct products to those most likely to purchase them. It is not conventionally realistic to expect them to consider those not included in the targeted market. Once a sale has been made, they may not in some cases be held liable for the product’s effect on the buyer other than on matters of safety imposed on them by legal agencies. Historically, however, “Let the buyer beware” has often been held up as a cherished marketing slogan.

More recently it appears that products and their makers have been shifting their focus from the onus of such “let-the-buyer-beware” cynicism to a philosophy dedicated to a more humane “user-friendly” relationship with others. Now some manufacturers are increasingly disposed, if not legally obligated, to treat their clients as friends and seek a more responsible relationship. At the heart of the American design relationship today is the realization that manufactured products are essentially democratic in nature rather than aristocratic and must be carefully and responsibly tailored to meet and serve human needs and desires.


The challenge for designers today is to conceive sophisticated democratic products to be manufactured at the lowest possible cost to the point that their service is more important than their substance. By this philosophy, democratic products are conceived that consume the least amount of energy and materials with the highest return in service to the public. Those who do not comprehend the fundamental difference between aristocratic and democratic products still expect manufactured products to last forever, despite the fact that they do not have the stuff of eternity in them.

However, more recently, it has become evident that new technologies and more conscientious manufacturing can provide longer product life, which is in harmony with the fact that people themselves are living longer. It is increasingly shortsighted and may even be humanistically and environmentally irresponsible to consider products as fragile acquisitions to be consumed and discarded in a relatively short time. As al interesting aside, there is a growing rebellion of sorts among collector of “modern antiques,” individuals who with some cultural affection are rescuing and even returning to service products that were made years earlier. Such products were manufactured at a time before the now more common principle that shorter product life and disposability are better for business. The survival of earlier products preserves artifacts of our existence for future cultural historians. One hopes a reawakened social consciousness will help manufacturers turn their attention to more humane products that are better able to serve the public over a longer period of time. There is no virtue in a product whose deliberate obsolescence perverts the historic commitment of the maker to the consumer.

Also, attractive products can be designed to meet the needs of broader spectrum of users without diminishing their value to those who purchase them. This should not be confused with the “styling” that employs superficial implications of value and relevance that can be extolled by promotional means. Such misguided energy might be better put to searching out and defining the real values and meaning of typeform. In fact, such a policy would enhance the end value of products by increasing their quality and reducing the effect of psychological and physical obsolescence on society and the environment. A more enlightened philosophy of manufacturers will help redirect those institutions and industries that now support and even encourage the widening of the social and cultural chasm between various age and income groups in our society.

An environmental otherworld seems to exist in the paradox that, in a society that prides itself on eternal youth, its older citizens are obliged to retire from public view to seek a safer place. One suspects that those who promote retirement homes and villages, no matter how conscientious they may be, are inadvertently creating isolated retreats that blemish the social fabric of a country. All humans have similar needs and desires; therefore, no one should be discriminated against by an environment conceived to suit narrower social norms. We need a sympathetic study of the relationship between human beings of all ages and the physical and product environment that they share. This study may help ameliorate the disturbing vision of a democracy shredding itself by endorsing segregation rather than encouraging integration.

The fragmentation of society into “targets” for sales rather than “service” may have contributed to a decline of empathy and social accountability that make invasive exploitation possible without pain of conscience. At first glance, one might presume that socially responsible design would lead to better services and products that meet the unique needs of society. However, as various age groups have spun away to form separate households, each tends to become a distinct “target” for manufacturers and merchandisers. This well-intended market-focusing, whatever its apparent benefits might be, also may work against the general public good.

A more rational and sensitive approach to product design would better serve makers as well as users of products. Broadening design criteria to bring the aging back from retirement havens would make homes, furnishings, and products more useful and convenient for everyone. Product forms that communicate their meaning, function, and means of operation should be in the first order of importance to designers and makers. Even such simple changes as larger type faces on product controls, labels, and instructional literature would convey their meaning to everyone with increased efficiency and safety. By some peculiar twist of logic it is still presumed that smaller controls and markings (jewelry in the trade) carry connotations of quality.

Another curious aspect of applied aesthetics dictates that product elements and controls must be designed to serve style as well as being useful and safe. Every whim of the art world tends to be immediately echoed in the form and configuration of utilitarian products. Note the incestuous awards in design competitions given by designers to designers. And witness the irresponsible transformation of such innocent daily necessities as kettles and telephones into “designer” products. they offer indisputable evidence of a baroque era of product aesthetics that one dares hope will return to forms that are more humane.

One realizes that today’s products and furnishings are being designed to match what is considered to be public taste within established parameters of price and expectation. However, a gaps still remains in communication between the makers and users of products. Manufacturers listen to their executive boards, who are focusing their attention on the profit line of financial reports, where there are no human beings. Merchandisers are enthralled with trade shows where promoters wave exhibits and electronic images at professional buyers who carry stereotypes of consumers that further serve to isolate maker from user. Although quality control may be promoted as a means of eliminating energy and material waste, despite such friendly implications, it also may serve to reduce quality to the lowest level of acceptance that assures the greater financial return to makers. An extension of this phenomenon may be reflected in the “after-markets” for accessories that supplement or rectify the shortcomings of the original product.

Some observers are concerned that, as globalization continues, products will lose their national identity. They fear that the broad dissemination of products and services will dilute ethnic characteristics that in the past have been considered essential to national survival. They warn that design will be neutralized into forms that are post-historic — beyond change.


The dictionary defines industrial design in simplistic error as being “concerned with the appearance of three-dimensional manufactured products.” It recognizes that manufactured products have an “appearance” but ignores the fact that such products also must be technically and physically sound. Nor is it aware of the psychological and physical interface between human beings and things and the environment that brings them together. Industrial design is concerned with three dimensions — aesthetics, technics, and economics — that serve the fourth dimension of our material existence: humanism. Each of us has a personal definition of industrial design. Mine identifies industrial design as the imaginative development of useful manufactured products and product systems that complement the man-made environment by serving the physical, social, and cultural needs and desires of human beings.

The common denominator for all industrial designers should be an aspiration to serve as surrogates for the public’s best interest and welfare in a material-dependent world. Industrial design at its highest level is a service profession, and such sales as may result will be because the product has fulfilled a human need or desire with distinction.

Beyond all of that is the designer’s hope that if the product has genuine aesthetic merit it is trapped in the work to be released after its function has been consumed, and both it and its maker have passed their moment in time. The artifacts our society leaves behind will help the future judge us as a people.

Arthur J. Pulos, FIDSA, FSA, is Emeritus Professor and Chairman of the Department of Design at Syracuse University. His publication include The American Design Ethic: A History of Industrial Design to 1940 (MIT Press, 1983) and The American Design Adventure, 1940-1975 (MIT Press, 1988).

* Adapted from a speech for the 1994 Beijing International Industrial Design Activities Week, December 5-9, 1994 Beijing, China.

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Spring 1996

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