The Design of Your Life

There's been a revolution in the world of design. The tyranny of experts is over, and we the people are finally in charge.

Men's Journal , October 2003

Those old sci-fi movies were wrong. The 21st century doesn't look at all the way they said it would. We citizens of the future aren't wearing conformist jumpsuits, living in utilitarian high-rises, or getting our food in the form of dreary-looking pills. On the contrary, we are demanding and creating a stimulating, diverse, and strikingly well-designed world. We like our vacuum cleaners and mobile phones to sparkle, our backpacks and laptops to express our personalities. We expect trees and careful landscaping in our parking lots, peaked roofs and decorative facades on our supermarkets, and auto dealerships as swoopy and stylish as the cars they sell.

"Design is everywhere, and everywhere is now designed," says David Brown, a design consultant and the former president of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. And it all happened so fast. It wasn't that long ago that Apple's iMac turned the personal computer from a utilitarian, putty-colored box into curvy eye candy -- blueberry, strawberry, tangerine, grape, lime. Translucent jewel tones spread to staplers and surge protectors and microwaves -- even American Express cards.

Since then everything around us has been getting a much needed face-lift. Volkswagen reinvented the Beetle. Karim Rashid reinvented the ordinary trash can. Oxo reinvented the potato peeler (thus proving that people will happily pay an extra five bucks for a kitchen tool if it looks and feels better). Even toilet brushes have become design objects, with something for every personality. The handle on Phillippe Starck's sleek Excalibur brush looks ready for a duel, while Alessi's Merdolino brush (designed by Stefano Giovannoni) sprouts like a bright green cartoon plant.

When Target introduced a line of housewares developed by architect-designer Michael Graves, few customers had ever heard of Graves. But his playful toaster quickly became the chain's most talked about, and most expensive, model. Target increased the number of Graves offerings to more than 500 and is still adding more Graves items -- and more designers.

"We're seeing design creep into everything," says Chicago industrial designer Mark Dziersk. The 1990s were the decade of distribution. Wal-Mart set the standard for low-cost, hyperefficient retailing, while the Internet made everything available everywhere. You can live in a small town and still buy stylish goods. "I see 2000-2010 as the decade of design," says Dziersk.

This trend doesn't mean that a particular style has triumphed or that we're necessarily living in a period of unprecedented creativity. It doesn't mean everything is now beautiful, or that people agree on basic standards of taste. Instead of a single dominant standard, we see aesthetic fluidity. Diversity and choice, not uniformity and consistency, are our new ideals. The holy grail of modern product designers is mass customization, not mass production. "Mass production offered millions of one thing to everybody," writes Bruce Sterling, the science fiction author and design champion, in Metropolis. "Mass customization offers millions of different models to one guy."

Ours is a pluralist age in which different styles can coexist, as long as they please the individuals who choose them. You don't just buy bluejeans anymore; you customize, picking the exact wash and cut you like best. If you don't like the look of the nearest Starbucks, the company gives you choices. "You can go three stores down to a different Starbucks and say, --I like this better. I just feel better here,'" explains a Starbucks executive. And once you're there you don't order just a cup of coffee. You navigate a long menu of customized combinations, including different beans, styles, and flavors.

All this choice required technological and business innovations, but the shift expresses deeper cultural changes, too. The extension of liberal individualism -- the primacy of self-definition over hierarchy and inherited, group-determined status -- has altered our aesthetic universe. Try as they may, official tastemakers no longer determine the "right way" to look. The issue is no longer what style is used but rather that style is used, consciously and conscientiously, even in areas where function used to stand alone.

Not that other values have gone away. We may crave a barbecue grill that looks like a piece of sculpture, but we still want it to work well. We get pleasure from the bright colors of Nalgene's plastic water bottles, but we also appreciate their indestructibility. We continue to care about cost, comfort, and convenience. It's just that on the margin aesthetics matters more than before.

Designers themselves are finally abandoning the modernist idea of the one best way and embracing the pleasures of personalization. "Good design is not about the perfect thing anymore but about helping a lot of different people build their own personal identities," says David Kelley, the founder of the IDEO design firm (which designed the look and feel of your iPod).

This attitude marks a huge shift. Designers and other cultural opinion leaders used to believe that a single aesthetic standard was right -- that style was a manifestation of truth, virtue, even sanity. What if someone didn't like the way Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius had arranged the furniture in the new Harvard dorm he designed? "Then they are a neurotic," Gropius replied.

Today's modernists don't talk like that. They emphasize pleasure and personality. "Instead of finding a style and adhering to its tenets, modern design allows you to grapple with your own ideas about how you want to live," says Lara Hedberg, publisher of Dwell, the architecture and interiors magazine for "nice modernists." Just because you like austere high-tech lighting and a chrome and glass coffee table doesn't mean you can't have a comfortable upholstered chair.

The current design revolution recognizes that sensory experience is as valid a part of our nature as our capacity to speak or to reason. "We are by nature -- by deep, biological nature -- visual, tactile creatures," says David Brown. The objects we desire don't need any other justification for pleasing our visual, tactile, emotional nature, as long as they make life more enjoyable.

Those prophets who forecast a sterile, uniform future got it wrong because they imagined a society shaped by impersonal laws of history and technology, divorced from individuality, pleasure, and imagination. But "form follows emotion" has supplanted "form follows function" as the defining mantra of the day, along with "I'd like a grande mint mocha Frappuccino."