Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bad Design

Bad design, particularly industrial design, is a subject I've wanted to write something about for a while, but I make it a policy not to talk about design unless I have a proper example as otherwise it turns out much like talking about love:  interesting only for the person talking.  So today I was fortunate to find a truly excellent example of just the kind of bad design I had in mind.

Helios concept

This is the "Helios", by designer Kim Gu-Han, which recently won "best use of technology" in the 2008 Interior Motives Design Awards.  It looks pretty cool, and it is horrendously terrible ID.

The Helios is an electric off-road vehicle with deployable solar panels that, in concept, can both run the vehicle while in motion and provide power to your house while stationary.  An illustration of its construction includes locations for a battery pack, a drive motor for the wheels, and the folded-up arms that fan outward to spread the flexible solar panels between them toward the sun for optimal surface area and efficiency while stationary.

Helios explanation

My problem with it is this:  of the many good and valuable things that ID can do, this succeeds at none.

I see this kind of bad design all the time; a beautiful concept that cleverly uses a theorized technology for a laudable goal.  It causes the viewer to stop and think "wouldn't that be amazing!"  The problem with all of these concepts is that the theorized technology is used primarily to make the designer's concept work, without considering what could really be done if that technology were available, let alone if the technology is even plausible.  And it's often that technology that makes the concept so immediately amazing, not the design work done with it.

Industrial design has many purposes.  It can make technology accessible, it can make it beautiful, and it can make it more efficient.  I, and many great designers I've had the pleasure to know, believe strongly in tightly linking the ID and engineering process, to the point of having difficulty distinguishing them.  Sadly many engineers treat design as mere styling -- a few curves and some color applied to the outside of a product once the engineers have finished the real work.  This viewpoint ignores how much good design can improve and inform engineering as it's happening;  consider the aluminum "unibody" MacBook, which displays great elegance in both its design and its construction using the machined aluminum frame as both rigid structure and elegant body.

But ID can also be about the exploration of future possibilities, and that is what the Helios clearly intends. Great concept design can guide technology down a path that might not have seemed important before, or can bring human and environmental factors into focus by using technologies in a different way.  This concept does none of these things, although it is trying very hard to look like it is.

Some analysis of the Helios:

The primary technology of the Helios is its solar panels.  To power a moving vehicle and unfurl for home charging, these solar panels would then have to be both flexible and provide a substantial amount of power -- both impossible with current technology. No problem -- exploration of the future, remember.  But let's go a step further in trying to understand the theoretical technology supporting the concept.

The Helios looks to have around 8 square meters of solar panel surface area while unfurled at rest, perhaps 2 square meters while in motion.  A small vehicle like that would be fun with 150 horsepower, which means that while in motion those 2 square meters would need to deliver 112 kilowatts, but lets make it 50kW to account for less-than-full-throttle average usage.  That's 25kW per sq.m.  Current Solar Challenge winners get about 1.5kW from about 7sq.m. of panel (able to push their ultra-aerodynamic, ultra-lightweight bodies on smooth roads), or 0.2kW per sq.m. -- less than 1/10 that of the Helios' panels! I might also note that current photovoltaics are about 30% efficient, so the Helios' panels would in fact produce nearly 4 times as much electrical energy as the energy contained in the sunlight falling on them!

Helios expanded

Even in this theoretical future of impossible 375% efficient, flexible solar panels, would the Helios be a compelling automobile?  I have to imagine that this world would have centralized solar stations in the desert providing incredibly cheap energy to homes.  There's no reason then to buy a car that can unfurl solar sails to help power your home, especially when the car will be more expensive and have less useful space due to those sails and the mechanicals to hoist them in the air.  In fact all that structure will be making your car heavier and thus less power efficient on the road -- not very green.  You'd also have to wonder why the designer of that car decided to give it long-nose proportions like the old fashioned gas-powered cars that had engines up there.

An electric off-roader design (even one making assumptions about solar and battery technology) focusing on using the technology to make the greatest real-world impact, both visually and practically, would be much harder for the designers though. So instead we have a pretty car design for a future that will never exist, with features that would be both pointless and unimpressive anyway.  Perhaps the Helios is only intended as a fantastical visual study then?  It could be, but it then must fall into the category of styling, not design.  It is a few curves applied to a technology that the designer cares about only insofar as it qualifies his concept as "green" and makes a derivative car concept immediately exciting.  And why perform a pure styling exercise for a product that would never be built?

As much as I fight engineers over the value of industrial design, and as frustrated as many designers are about not being taken seriously, it saddens me that this confirmation of the designer stereotype won a design award for "best use of technology".  I imagine that other competing designs that were thoughtful about uses of existing technology or that fully explored the possibilities of imaginable future technologies were ignored because they were too mundane.  The elegant unibody MacBook might not have won any design awards against a dual-touchscreen, 3mm thin, holographic palmtop... but the MacBook is both real, and offers real, practical advantages with its new design and engineering features.

Bad ID can be well-styled, but it is still bad design.