This book was born out of an observation. While reading a recent newspaper review of Antigen Rapid Test (ART) kits, this sentence jumped out at me:
“Aesthetics aside, all the kits were found to be very similar, with only slight differences in procedure.”
Aesthetics aside? In just two words, the reviewer dissected the kits’ design into form and function and so casually dismissed the former. At first, I was irritated by the assumption that form in design was mere styling, or even worse, a distraction. That quickly grew into an existential crisis: If aesthetics could be so conveniently cast aside, then why have I spent all of my adult life researching and writing about design?
So I decided to compile a decade’s worth of writings into a book. The 30 essays in Aesthetics Aside: Observations on Design in the Everyday come from various points in my career, including my very first story decoding a city’s identity by examining the typefaces on its streets to a recent reflection on the role of imitation in design and life. Each offers a journey beyond the stylish “designer” world, on to the designed graphics, environments and objects that we encounter daily.
Design never looked so ordinary, and extraordinary.
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Dots. Lines. Crosses. Boxes. They have popped up all across Singapore over the past few weeks. Plastered over furniture, floors, and more, the city-state renowned for its cleanliness and order has become a maze of symbols, in order to defend its inhabitants from the COVID-19 pandemic.
This “mess” is indeed a series of messages. They tell citizens to stay apart from one another as the city battles to control the spread of the virus. Such makeshift signs started appearing right after the government introduced safe distancing measures on March 20, in order to limit the number of people gathering in a space and keep them at least 1-metre apart.
With just two-days notice before the measures turned into law, and no specific guide on how to implement them, local businesses and organizations quickly found their own solutions. While some printed custom signage to explain the measures, the most popular method has been to use adhesive tape to construct symbols, from crossing out seats to drawing queue lines and cordoning off areas.
➜ Read the full story in AIGA’s Eye on Design
Designers are obsessed with the details. Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once remarked that “God is in the detail”. One of the ten principles of good design laid out by industrial designer Dieter Rams states that “Good design is thorough down to the last detail”. Furniture designer Charles Eames took this to its logical conclusion when he declared that “The details are not the details. They make the design.”
I first noticed a “detail” in design while opening a pack of Nongshim’s Shin Ramyun Noodle Soup packaging. Jutting out from its top was a triangular indicator of where I should tear open.
That got me thinking about other details in design, the little touches that make a huge impact. Here’s one that many must be familiar with: a bottle cap that also acts an opener. The pointy edge on one side of the cap is designed for piercing open the sealed bottle.
This next example is something many have encountered, but not necessarily understood. The little dimple on the keypad of ATMs help the visually impaired orientate themselves and figure out where the centre of the numbers is.
Sometimes, a detail in design gives the product an extra edge. In the case of this potato peeler, one side juts out to function as an extractor of “potato eyes”, a bud which some may find disconcerting to cook with.
Finally, here’s a design detail that may seem unnecessary to some, but for me, shows the deep level of consideration MUJI gives to its products. This dimple protects its pen nibs so customers can be assured their pens are less likely to be damaged. It probably discourages shoppers from taking their pens on extensive test-runs too!
Have you encountered details in a design? I’m looking to compile more for a possible showcase. Drop me a line!