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A Philosophy of Industrial Design: Enhancing People's Lives
by Charles Harrison

If there is anything distinctive or unique about my design philosophy or approach, I don't think it is clearly evident when looking at the finished products I designed. I can sum it up, however, with the following principles:

I strongly believe that things should not be forced to look a certain way. Appearance should evolve or come about naturally as a result of function. The visual statement should express a harmony with why the product exists -- what it does, how it is made, what it is made of -- and look pleasing if not beautiful.

I believe that design should search all possible ways to maximize the usefulness of the result. This built-in versatility means that it may provide more than one function. If it is a product, the materials and manufacturing process used must be creatively explored and mated in a way that incorporates all opportunities.

Sincerity and Honesty
These design principles speak to lasting value. The honest designer must be conscious of not introducing fake or insincere elements -- imitations of natural materials or components such as knobs or handles that don't work -- that may add visual interest but have no connection to function. For me, this disconnect defined the difference between simple cosmetics and genuine esthetics.

And when one designs a product, the effort must enhance the quality of peoples' lives. In other words -- and I firmly believe in this -- contribute what you can, excluding trickery, cuteness, imitation or misrepresentation. The intention is to strive for a straightforward, clear and simple solution. When intent is adhered to throughout the design process, the end result will project the image that the product "belongs" and is there to help and contribute.

When considering my life's design, I have to say that as with the works that I have tried to create, shape or improve, form has arisen from use. And use, or usefulness, has gone beyond mere circumstance and has had its root buried deep in the soil of need. Circumstance dictated that a boy from the rural South, a black boy whose family lived on the fine edge between poverty and doing all right, was destined to neither amount to nor contribute much. Add to that a condition that forced me to train my mind to literally turn objects around so that I could discover their meaning.

But I came from a family that taught me to see beyond circumstance, find value and create usefulness out of need. The legacy I inherited required that I make myself useful -- as a son, man, husband, father and artist. If I were to share one thought with the design community of today and tomorrow it would be to remember that your purpose -- your gift to the world -- is to provide straightforward solutions to real problems for living, breathing human beings. As an industrial designer especially, your audience is neither history nor fame, but a couple who worked hard to buy their first home on a quiet street and would love just one more hour of sleep in the morning, even on trash day. Your muse is the kid who needs something to occupy his mind and hands during that long drive to grandma's house. Your biggest critic will be the struggling mother who can't afford to keep replacing her kitchen appliances every time a little piece of ornate but useless piece of plastic breaks off.

Know the difference between deep satisfaction and simply delivering a 'wow.' The latter is fancy and derives from simply delivering the unexpected. On the other hand, I believe that deep satisfaction arises when you find an elegant solution to a problem that has, until now, had a hindering effect or negative impact on a person's quality of life or experience. The elegant solutions I am talking about should be executed in such a straightforward manner as to nearly scream their presence to the world.

Function should be obvious -- a straightforward solution to a meaningful problem. If I humbly submit my life's design as an example of anything, I would dare say that I have shown, through conscious effort and accident that human beings are the most creative when we encounter the unexpected. Software will give you exactly what you ask for. Corporations drive toward the bottom line, and sometimes the lowest common denominator. On the other hand, a pencil and paper might throw you a curve. A lack of job security may cause you to find security deep within yourself. The afternoon sun may literally shed light on a problem in a way that you may not have seen at daybreak. Being the odd man out may give you the right perspective. Learning to fish without a pole might just change your life.

(c) 2005, Ibis Design Incorporated. Excerpted from A Life's Design: The Life and Work of Industrial Designer Charles Harrison.

Charles Harrison may be contacted at

Charles Harrison is a retired industrial designer who developed more than 750 manufactured products over his decades-long career. In 2008, he became the first African-American to ever be accorded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Design Awards.



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