The Full Interview with Michaela P. Thomas by former Butterflies & Hurricanes intern Eva Cao Thi.
Eva Cao Thi – a former intern at Butterflies & Hurricanes, who is now studying Branding and Marketing Management of Fashion Design at VIA University College, Denmark – recently asked if she could interview me for a project she is doing on sustainable design. I wanted to share her questions and my answers with you, our wonderful blog readers.
1. What role does design have in your work and life?
In work, packaging design for me is far more than just making pretty pictures to make products stand out on a shelf. It simplifies complexity, and communicates on numerous levels the quality of the product, the company’s values and what it has to offer the customer – it is the first hello of a long-term, two-way relationship with customers. In a way it is like a social contract.
Slogan for Michaela’s other company, Live Love & Prosper.
But what design means to me at its deepest level, is giving something back to society – and this is not so much out of responsibility, but out of love. I love design and I love people, and want the best for them.
For so many decades, before and after the Velvet Revolution, packaging design in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic was, and often still is, terrible; so much of it is nothing more than visual smog.
So I feel it is my duty to help raise the design literacy here, because design can make people think, it can open mental doors, it can produce delight and wonder and can bring about positive change.
Above and below: Two examples of poor packaging design from the Czech Republic. (See More)
There have been many scientific studies on the effect design has on mood, psychological outlook and a person’s wellbeing. And design, both good and bad, is everywhere around us 24 hours a day, from the mattress we sleep on and the shape of our toothbrush, to the clothes we put on, the shape of the coffee maker and the label on the coffee package, the furniture we sit on, to the building we live in, the streets we walk down, the office we work in, the services we get – or don’t get – and the lives we build for ourselves.
How Color, Type and Space Can Impact Mood.
Unfortunately most people only notice design when it is audacious, or when it is poorly done, such as when clothes are uncomfortable, or a machine is frustrating to use, or a website, highway or medical system is difficult to navigate. Design when it is done very well is, and should be, invisible to non-designers.
Example of a design that is fun and can bring delight.
Good design can bring delight and wonder, and it can be fun. Chopping vegetables with a well-designed knife can be a pleasurable Zen-like experience. Apple computer products are so popular mainly because of their design. The design of the iPod, and the delight its use brought millions of people, changed the entire music industry – music can now make people happy anywhere they want it and with endless variety.
Example of a story-driven design with undigital elements.
Unfortunately, poor design also communicates. If the service, or a paper form, at a government office is poorly designed, it communicates something about how the government values its citizens.
But if I create a design that produces delight or wonder, or makes someone feel good and maybe brightens their day for a few minutes, then it says to people: You are valued, you are important to us, and we hear you. (This is why customer-centricity is so important in design, and why personalization of products and containers is a trend.)
When people feel valued it is more likely that they will care more about their role as citizens, and who knows, maybe then corruption decreases and democracy thrives, and everything changes for the better. Call me a dreamer, but this is what I believe.
Butterflies & Hurricanes’ redesign of Lučina (See more)
That is why, at B&H, we challenge our clients to be more customer-centric, sustainable, and to have a higher purpose behind their products.
For example, the design of our latest project for Lučina is very pure and clean, the copy is short and playful and is about the purity and freshness of the brand. This sends a message below the line that says to the customer, “We are here for you, and you are doing good for yourself, because you value yourself enough to bring this quality into your life.” I think this is extremely important, especially in formerly-communist countries. The future doesn’t have to just happen, it can be designed.
Butterflies & Hurricanes’ redesign of Lučina.
2. What role does design play in the society, nowadays? Do you see any changes?
The short answer is “A huge role”, and “Yes, huge changes”. But to explain will take a little longer.
As I mentioned above, every made thing around us was designed by someone, and all of it has an effect on our psychological outlook. It can make us more optimistic, or more pessimistic. It can energize us or depress us, and with the related effects on behavior design can be a powerful force for change. Therefore, I think that design plays a large role in a society’s wellbeing, and therefore its future.
Design as a force for change. Designer Karim Rashid has created a bottle that filters water as the user drinks it. It can help in areas where clean water is difficult to find.
Furthermore, the world is growing more complex by the minute, and design at its best simplifies complexity. In fact I would say that is the ultimate purpose of design. The simplification of complexity, like in the iPod example above, can bring about tremendous change.
Above and Below: Pill Pack designed by IDEO to simplify the complexity of taking daily doses of numerous medicines.
Though there are huge cultural and organic elements that shape a society, many people forget that societies are designed, and that real people make those decisions, either consciously or unconsciously. I am for making all of these decisions them with purpose and intent.
The layout of a city, the educational, legal, medical, and political systems, for example, as well as all the infrastructure are designed by people, politicians, architects, lawyers, engineers and hopefully artists. Unfortunately not all of those people have had much education in design. Businesses are designed, brands are designed, customer service is designed, government forms are designed. One of the reasons Amazon.com has been so successful is the design of their algorithms and especially their amazing customer service.
“Designers must take the lead in simplifying complexity.” - Rebecca Costa, who writes and speaks extensively on the requirements of design in the 21st Century.
Unfortunately, though, for most people in the general public design – other than maybe fashion design, web design, and interior design – is often something arty and distant. In more western countries the level of product design and packaging design has really seen the acceptance of a new level of creativity, as well as the inclusion of sustainability, customer-centricity and higher purpose, with an eye to the coming Circular Economy, in product design. People there are more open to new designs and are beginning to get the psychological, and even health, benefits of good design.
One of Butterflies & Hurricanes’ designs for Kofola.
With a few notable exceptions like the Kofola company, where things are really changing in this positive direction, in the Czech Republic design is lagging far behind, mostly due to fear-based conservatism and male-driven stubbornness. I have written about this on the B&H blog a number of times, because I believe that a society that ceases to wonder, is a society in decline. But good design can spark wonder. And wonder is good for everybody, including business.
That said, I do see more and more attempts at breaking out of this box creep onto store shelves, and that is a very encouraging sign.
“Why Critical Design Literacy is Needed Now More Than Ever” – DML Central
So, what to do about it? A big part is in education. I think that design literacy is one of the most important skills a person needs to develop in the 21st Century, and should be taught, at least on a basic level in schools just as reading, writing, mathematics, computer coding, languages and art. It has been said that in the near future, every company will be, on some level, a design company. We need to prepare the next generation for this.
In this video, Emily Polloton describes a new education program based on Design Thinking, that is transforming a rural community.
Another thing that can be done is to get more women further up in decision-making positions in companies. It has been my experience that women grasp these changes faster and more thoroughly than many male bosses. I think women are, in general, more dynamic than men, and less blinded by ego. I am not saying that men are not good at their jobs, only that with more equal representation of women there will be more creativity and companies will more dynamic and agile.
Agility is of prime importance for any company it today’s hyper-dynamic market place, and more women in decision making positions will make a company more agile, and therefore more viable and profitable.
As far as the changes I have seen, Steve Jobs, and his ability to think beyond form and functionality to the level of experience, ease and service, was a visionary and had a major role in this change. Since Apple computers entered our lives, people have realized, that they deserve better than ugly gray plastic boxes in their homes and offices. Apple made computers something more than just a tool, they made computers something you live with – people even take them to bed with them. This goes along with what I said earlier, about design being more than just pretty pictures, because in the 21st century it is about designing service and experiences. This is what Jobs understood early on. He brought designer culture into our everyday lives. He was an example of the future designer, who has to be as much a multi-discipline visionary, as a philosopher and engineer.
The Guardian newspaper now has a whole section for articles on Sustainable Business. Global companies such as Interface Carpets are proving the economic superiority of the sustainable business model.
And luckily in terms of sustainability people are FINALLY starting to see that endless blind consumption is unsustainable, AND to care about it. Awareness is spreading that our consumption in the West is being paid for by lowering the quality of life for people on the other side of the world, and that bill will boomerang back to us and demand to be paid. That may be in the form of disease, war, waves of immigrants, and who knows what else. It’s not my field at all, but I have heard some good arguments that many of the troubles in the Middle East are ultimately caused by climate change and globalization.
Global companies such as Interface Carpets are proving the economic superiority of the sustainable business model.
People are finally starting to see that not everything has to be made out of plastic, or breakable energy intensive porcelain, and that mindless consumption, of which packaging plays a very large role, can cause a lot of harm to our planet.
More and more people are now refilling bottles and containers or choose something little more expensive that is less damaging to people, societies and the environment. They are buying local products instead of those that come half way around the world. There is still a long way to go, but there is progress being made, such as shops with no packaging, and inventions like packaging that melts away after use so that no waste is created (Tomorrow Machine) or reusing the packaging for refills, or up-cylcing them for other uses. And all of these are all design problems that can be solved with innovative design.
Companies like Capventure zuperzozial and 8Pandas are creating biodegradable kitchenware out of sustainable bamboo, they are wonderfully designed. (Both are available in the Czech Republic and Slovakia from Live Love & Prosper.)
3. How do you perceive the digital overflow in society, nowadays? Do you feel that reality is becoming less relevant?
“If by digital overflow you mean our obsession with being connected 24 hours a day, then I feel that reality is even more relevant than ever, because people are less aware of it, less in contact with it, less mindful of the physical world and things happening here. The Internet has a way of magnifying shallow things of small importance and then, with retweets and reblogging and reposts, it reflects that shallowness infinitely thus making it seem more important than it is, and focusing people on shallowness.
It’s just a reflection, of a reflection, of a reflection, of a reflection. . . .” The Arcade Fire, Reflector
Or if by digital overflow you mean how so much of what we see has been digitally manipulated or created purely digitally, then I still feel that reality is more important than ever.
That is what is at the heart of the whole “undigital” trend, as I have named it, where designs are softer, more organic looking. Undigital designs use a lot of hand-made techniques such as screen printing, lino-carving, aquarelle painting, hand made typefaces, and illustration styles that are not Photoshopped or airbrushed to digital perfection (thank God).
The undigital trend is the inclusion of reality into the digital world, a connection, a soulful tether, to the human imperfect world. And I am so impressed and amazed at how designers, and nowadays just ordinary people in the DIY fad, which has been massively spread by Pinterest, bring a human touch to the digital world.
Example: Digital (left), UnDigital (right), one screams "BUY ME!", the other
"Take me home and live with me."
And if you take these two versions of digital overflow together it starts to make sense what I learned recently when I went with my family on holiday over Christmas to a hotel where there was no internet. At first it made me crazy, but after a couple of days I started to reconnect with “undigital” nature, and truly relax for the first time in ages.
One last thought on this topic. It is no coincidence that social media and customer-centricity have grown up together. The digital tools around social media allow greater understanding of the audience, which allows designs to be more customer-centric. So, another big change in design has been how much more we listen to the audience we are designing for.
The benefits of shifting to a Customer-Centric style of thinking are increased brand loyalty, increased market share, and increased profits, but it is a term that is easily misunderstood.
4. How relevant, in your opinion, is the sustainable approach to design in the digital age?
Sustainable design is extremely relevant and extremely – I’d even say ultimately – important, because it has to do with our continued prosperity and existence on planet Earth. Sustainability, in every area of design, is the future, because without it there will be no future, and it has been shown to be so profitable that companies that don’t get on board with it will eventually wither. (Patagonia)
Digital tools are key to sustainable design because it allows designs to be prototyped, improved and produced with less energy and much less waste. In the B&H studio, due to computers and design software, we use much less physical resources and chemicals, like paper and inks, than were used in design studios twenty years ago, even with the inclusion of undigital elements. 3D printing is a good example, as it is additive, as opposed to subtractive like traditional systems, there is little or no material waste in the production process.
Furthermore, sustainable design has other benefits. For one it is exciting. Once people grasp the depth and beauty, and simplicity, of the concept, they often become highly motivated. Making your company sustainable attracts the best people and promotes the use of design thinking to solve problems.
We have to get back to designing quality products that last for many years, and get away from the paradigm of disposability and engineered obsolescence. This is an idea at the heart of the Circular Economy, where the model will be that the customer doesn’t own the machine or product, he or she just pays for the service, the use of it, and the company maintains ownership of the machine or product and therefore has an incentive to make it with the highest quality possible. There are two clothing companies doing this, Patagonia, and Mud Jeans.
Many people, when they think about it, feel bad about coming home from the shop with a dozen plastic bags, even if they reuse or recycle them. But the great thing is there are already alternatives, and new alternatives being designed every day. This will have profound effects on the packaging design industry, especially with the rise of packageless stores and the internet of things.
5. As a designer do you feel any social responsibility toward future generations? How important is that to your work?
I basically answered this at the top in my first answer about how I see design as giving something back to society, a bridge to a better future. I do feel a lot of social responsibility to future generations, including my own children. But again, it is out of love. And what I mean by that is that I don't do it because I feel I have to, or because i think people need me, but because I love it and love the people it may improve things for. It is my way of giving back.
Most of that centers around the idea of designing a better future, by using design thinking to solve problems. Design Thinking is a deep process – that includes considering things like sustainability and the Circular Economy – which uses design to solve problems, even huge problems on a global scale. And though it wasn’t called design thinking it was once a common thing, especially during the Renaissance. For example, if you go to the technical museum in Prague, you can see all these early scientific instruments, and they are beautiful, hand crafted and decorated to have not only functionally but also to be aesthetically pleasing, inspiring even, that is, to create a positive user experience.
Planet position predictor, 16th Century.
In the Renaissance making tools a pleasure to work with was part of the ideal. Then you see the instruments made after the Industrial Revolution, which were much more focused on mere functionality. This is especially evident after World War II, when mass production went into high gear and most instruments were in gray plastic boxes. It is the same with buildings, the buildings were not just buildings but also works of art meant to inspire. This is one of the reasons the old parts of Prague are so popular and world famous – and why paneláks are so depressing.
Hewlett-Packard digital voltmeter, 1960.
6. How do you think further digital developments are going to change your work as a designer?
Digital developments have massively changed my work already. It has simplified many things, brought new other complexities, and opened doors to designs that were unthinkable before.
The tools we use affect the type and style of work we do. I know there are some designs I would not have thought of using old tools like pencils, ink, paper, old Mac computers with black and white screens and Quark Xpress, which now seems like carving in stone. For the most part I expect change to accelerate, and with it will come even newer ideas and types of designs. These have already started with things like responsive designs that will tailor themselves to individual viewers or different times of the day, week or year. Responsive design was just a dream only a few years ago.
Furthermore the re-inclusion of undigital handmade elements will also affect that, and there is something almost spiritual about not having an undo button, because it forces me into a different thinking and execution process (thought don’t get me wrong, I love my undo buttons, which do save time and resources). I expect to see more textures and other elements that bring in the senses other than just sight. The play between these old methods and the digital methods is where some of my newest ideas come from. I am not an absolutist in any of this, I believe there is a balance to be found between the analog and digital techniques.
Now add into this 3D design and 3D printing for rapid prototyping and design iteration and that will open idea-doors that no one can predict.