Design inspiration: Brooks Stevens

Design driven by function will pay for itself many times over

 

When you look back, what indicators do you now see that you were destined for your current career path?

Me? I was one of those kids that, whatever you gave me, I’d take it apart. That’s the first thing I’d do. Of course, this was often to the chagrin or consternation of whoever had given it to me. If I (or the gift-giver) was lucky, perhaps I’d even get it back together again. Maybe it was just snapping the axles or wheels back onto a little toy car.

At one point, I built wooden radio cabinets and stuffed them with the guts I’d pulled from the plastic table-top radios around the house. My family did a great job of pretending they liked my “redesign.” I guess it should have been apparent to all at the time I would become a design engineer.

Now, it’s my job to help others successfully implement their CAD (computer-aided design) software and processes. It’s a dynamic, rapidly changing field that requires work to keep up.

In my quest to continually improve myself and my skills, of course, I always seek out resources. I am a big believer in being familiar with your resources. But in my search for information, I always try to devote part of that time to inspiration. I consider it equally to be a tool of the trade. And, there are few designers I’ve found to be as fascinating than Brooks Stevens.

Brooks has been described by a Parisian news writer as “a functionalist but also an aesthete” although he more humbly described himself as a “businessman-engineer and stylist.” He is known for popularizing the term “planned obsolescence.” Brooks defined this as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

To this day, this sometimes controversial process drives much of the design progression we see. His eternal belief was that good design would pay for itself many times over, and throughout the Depression and World War II eras, he often found himself having to justify this belief–and his entire profession.

What most impresses me about his designs and those of his firm are the sheer depth and breadth of industries and disciplines they spanned: over 3,000 designs in all, including industrial and product design, facilities and architectural design, packaging, appliances, cookware, marketing collateral, and lawn and garden.

And, let’s not forget his many, many vehicular designs – from tractors, motorhomes, boats, snowmobiles, bicycles, railroad cars, a hybrid car (in 1979!), Studebakers, Harley-Davidsons, Willys and Cadillacs to … yes, the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile! All are products that we use, and perhaps even take for granted, every day (except, perhaps, for that Weinermobile).

Despite the aesthetics, his designs were driven by function.

“His specialty was to make products more user-friendly. He was best at understanding how products were meant to function and modifying them so the customer could use them more easily,” says Gary Wolfe, curator of the Brooks Stevens Gallery of Industrial Design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Perhaps my favorite story involves him being responsible for increasing sales of clothes dryers by changing nothing about the fundamental design except adding a window so consumers could see the machine in action. Imagine that! This is exactly the kind of inspired thinking that has so driven my love for designers and their tools.

I’ll end with a quotation from one of my favorite magazines, reporting on Mr. Stevens’ death:

“There are great men in this world who make history and great men who are history. The former are the warriors and statesmen and media darlings who get all of the headlines in the history books. But equally important – perhaps even more so – are those rare and gifted individuals who quietly go about building and shaping and recreating day by day the world where those headlines (not to mention the rest of our lives) take place. And so much the better when, like Brooks, their genius is tempered with humility, humanity, and humor.” (Vintage Motorsport, 1995)

If I’ve piqued your interest, much more information can be found at the Milwaukee Art Museum and, of course, Wikipedia.

So please, do your due diligence and keep yourself abreast of all the developments in your field, and as importantly, the resources available to you. But, while doing that, don’t forget to stay in touch with that inner being, the one that inspired you and drove you to become what you are today. And, please feel free to share your experiences and inspirations!

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