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This chapter is from the book

Design Application

For this project, the students write and design an 8 1/2″ x 11″ brochure, in three sections, about a man-made object. The first section states the object's significance; the second covers historical or background information; the third shows how the object functions.

The process we follow is similar to that described in the section on “Form and Structure,” which occurs earlier in this book. That section focuses on formal aspects of design; this one attempts to simulate the sort of problem solving demanded by “real life” situations. School is a hothouse environment. We try to give a taste of the world of professional practice. Only a taste is possible. There is no way to expose students to the real thing, its sorrows or its pleasures.

Designers are usually given jobs that are tightly constrained; the purposes are explicit; materials are specified; the audience is closely defined. Seldom are there wide degrees of freedom. We want students to work inventively within such constraints—and produce work that appeals to nondesigners. We are not designing for each other. This assignment makes that point. You have to target the audience and hit it. Or fail.

If we accept the notion that good design is a fusion of art and craft, a designer must rise above limitations, or exploit them, making a virtue of necessity, making the ordinary extraordinary.

Each section of the class is given its own object, a bicycle, an abacus, whatever.

This kind of practical assignment helps students apply what they have learned in earlier assignments. Practice is as necessary for a designer as it is for a musician. Talent is never enough.

The abacus, a calculating device still used in Asia, has a frame divided into upper and lower portions set with moveable beads on parallel rods. It is a simple, elegant device whose structure lends itself to exciting design. This assignment can be approached from a cultural, historical, or technilogical point of view. There are lots of ways to consider this ancient mechanism; it has an intriguing shape, an inherently interesting design in its own right. And its function is rich with meaning.

This assignment is based on engraved Peruvian gourds, a craft dating back more than 2,500 years. The wonderfully intricate decorations illustrate cultural events: processions, bullfights, folk dances, important personages, and ancient myths.

One reason why I give this assignment is that reference material on decorated gourds is scarce. The students must dig deep to find information. Another reason: It gives them the pleasure of surprise in discovering the cultural and artistic significance of this humble object.

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