Mikkelsen, M.K. (2019) ‘Tell it all with Leather and Stripes’ in ‘What’s the Matter? – New Pathways for Material-Based Learning and Knowledge Development in Design’ Report on artistic research project. Kolding School of Design
To be a Storyteller with Materials Instead of Words
An author uses the language to tell stories and create moods. Similarly, a musician uses tones just as a product designer uses materials and colours to tell stories and create moods. The author, musician or designer all creates stories out of their unique material based on a desire to pass on this story to another human being.
When the product designer tells stories, she works with visual and tactile expressions. She considers colours and materials and carefully selects them based on what she wants to express. Already at the beginning of the design process, she has considered what she wants with the design. Is it dramatic or calm? Is it whimsical or serious? Based on these considerations, she composes colours and materials into an expression that conveys precisely this design’s distinctive narrative. This procedure applies not only to the artistic, independent designer with an exclusive handmade collection, but also is also applicable to the ordinary industrial designer who must design for a production company with a focus on sales and bottom line.
Over the past 10 years, a new design discipline known as CMF design has emerged. CMF design is short for colour, material and finish design. In larger companies, there are entire CMF departments that participate in strategic decision making regarding the company’s product range (1). The need for this relatively new design discipline has arisen from the knowledge that the product manufacturing in colour and material is the communicative externals or appearance of the design, which the user quickly reads and interpret. Here, the narrative of the design is manifested and the CMF design will convey not only the present design, but also the underlying brand. The brand’s values and visions must, so to speak, be visible in the products’ CMF strategies. Therefore, it is important to train the designer’s narrative authority and ability to communicate through materials.
Narrating Material Aesthetics
This article describes the project Narrating Material Aesthetics, which contributes to the study of the designer’s narrative authority, partly through an analysis of students’ work and partly through a design experiment. The project has been carried out as an artistic research project. That means it has been completed by a designer whose use of design methods and reflective practice generates new knowledge about design.
What is a narrative? We usually understand ‘to narrate’ as ‘to tell (a story) in detail’ (2). It is a discipline that traditionally belongs to the verbal language. But the word ‘narrative’ is also often used in the context of design processes to describe the way the designer installs meaning in a product. A product narrative can be defined as ‘the potential for a product to communicate or initiate the telling of a story’ (3). One can say that for the designer ‘to narrate’ means ‘to shape (a story) in detail’.
What is a material? Most professions have a material with which they create. Musicians use notes to create music and scientists use data to create knowledge. Materials are ‘the elements, constituents, or substances of which something is composed or can be made’ (4). In the project Narrating Material Aesthetics, materials are defined as the materials that a CMF designer works with. Specifically, in this project, it is leather.
What is aesthetics? There are various definitions of aesthetics that relate to both beauty and sensation. Mads Nygaard Folkmann argues that we can talk about aesthetics in design when design objects ‘seek to appear attractive or seek to challenge our senses or understanding’ (5). In the project Narrating Material Aesthetics, the experiments are discussed based on four concrete understandings of when something appears attractive or challenges our senses by focusing on: Harmony, Trend, Sensation and Experience (6).
The students work with the wild and the mild
For the past ten years, Design School Kolding and the shoe brand ECCO have engaged in a strategic partnership. Every year, as part of this partnership, a student workshop is held during which, students develop concepts for shoe collections and produce prototypes for each collection. Each workshop has had a special theme. In 2013, the theme was the notion of ‘wild & mild’. The incentive to work with this contrast was to use the fashion world’s differentiation between Haute Couture and Pret á Porter to draw the students’ attention to the difference between unique and commercial products. Students were asked to design a shoe collection in which one shoe had to be ‘wild’ and one shoe had to be ‘mild’. ‘Wild’ represented Haute Couture, and here the students’ design concepts or narratives could be conveyed using the most expressive means. ‘Mild’ was conversely representing Pret á Porter, where the essence of the design concept had to be boiled down to a minimum in a commercial shoe (7).
The project Narrating Material Aesthetics conducted a comparative analysis of the students ‘wild and mild’ shoes to investigate whether there are common features in the students’ choices regarding form and material to create a ‘wild’ and a ‘mild’ expression, respectively. The findings are gathered in a matrix with a total of four lists. The lists are not conclusive but indicate principles that appear several times in the comparison between ‘wild’ and ‘mild’. Common to both the ‘wild’ and the ‘mild’ shoes is that all forms of expression can be present. There are both geometric and organic shapes as well as several types of materials and colours. The differences lie in how these shapes and materials are composed. The ‘wild’ shoes are generally more complex with larger and more shapes, there are several and unconventional materials as well as stronger colour contrasts. In contrast, the ‘mild’ versions are dimmed in both form and materials, with smaller and fewer shapes and with traditional, more processed materials with fewer colour contrasts.
The artistic research project Narrating Material Aesthetics also includes a designerly experiment. The purpose of the experiment is to focus on how the CMF designer uses materials to create visual narratives, and whether other people read narratives according to the designer’s intentions.
That is, does the design give the user an aesthetic experience similar to the designer’s? Is there a match between the designer’s narrative and his intention towards the user’s perception? The illustration shows the designer on one side of his design and the user on the other. Are they experiencing the same thing?
The experiment is structured as an intermediate between a systematic and an exploratory experiment (8). Systematic is understood to mean an experiment that has both variable and constant parameters. In the experiment in Narrating Material Aesthetics, the constant parameters are the choice of leather as a consistent material, four colours, cutting and weaving as techniques as well as variations of the stripe as a visual idiom throughout. Applying constant parameters makes it easier to compare the results of the experiments. The use of the leather and the other constant parameters can also be seen as a creative constraint that forces the designer to think in new ways in terms of expressing the design narrative.
Elements of the exploratory experiment are simultaneously present in this experiment. The explorative is characterized by an open approach to the experiment that is initiated on the basis of a wonder formulated by: what if? This free approach is particularly evident in the processing of the materials, as this process is not subject to any formalised workflow but is based on the designer’s own ingenuity and curiosity. The experiment consists of four phases and one conclusion.
Phase 1: Narrating material or designing with leather and stripes
We can refer to the design process as the designer’s reflective conversation with her material (9). For this metaphor to make sense, we must understand the situation as an exchange of information between the designer and the material. This information is, respectively, the designer’s processing of the material (the designer informs the material by doing something to it), and, respectively, the material that communicates back to the designer through the aesthetic expressions she has created.
This first phase of the experiment represents the designer’s dialogue with the material and consists of an open approach with free, fabulating and divergent working methods. A series of twenty leather samples, with the stripe as the visual expression, are created during this phase. The designer constantly tries in different ways to create ‘mild’ and ‘wild’ expressions in the material within the limitations of the leather and stripes. The designer therefore pushes the understanding of a stripe as parallel lines with various lengths and widths to the extreme.
Phase 2: Analysis of material narration
This phase consists of an analysis of the created leather samples or material narrations. The designer steps out of the divergent state and assesses her own work. This analysis is done by filling in an index card for each material sample. The index card describes the expression of the material sample on the basis of designer aesthetics by focusing on Harmony, Trend, Sensation and Experience.
In this phase, the narrative is expanded from ‘wild’ and ‘mild’ to also including a number of additional adjectives. These are partly based on the designer’s analysis, but are at the same time an expression of subjective judgment and relate back to the considerations and choices made by the designer already in the creation of the material tests. The first two phases form a unified whole and are an interaction between creation and reading, between synthesis and analysis. This interaction takes place in the design process as a wordless or silent dialogue between the designer and the material.
Phase 3: The user’s aesthetic experience of material narration
In the previous two phases, the designer has been both creative and analytical. The designer has both created an expression and read it. But the designer creates for others and therefore, in the third phase of the experiment, focus is placed on the relationship between the design and the user. The user also engages in a dialogue with the design: The design gives the user an aesthetic experience. At the same time, the user applies the design and creates new relationships and contexts.
To learn whether others read the material samples the way the designer does, a number of people are asked to be test persons and as such make a spontaneous assessment of the material samples. This is done by the test person first ranking the twenty material samples on a continuum from ‘mild’ to ‘wild’. Thus, a comparison is made between the different samples. By using comparison as a method, the notion of ‘mild’ and ‘wild’ are not experienced as absolutes but relative to each other. Subsequently, the test person pairs the material samples with expressive words from a list. These words describe the test person’s aesthetic experience of the materials or how the person interprets the narrative of the materials.
The layout below is done by the test person first ranking the twenty material samples on a continuum from ‘mild’ to ‘wild’
Phase 4: Material compositions
The fourth and final phase of the experiment is, just as the first phase, a creative and exploratory phase with a free and uncritical approach. A number of compositions are created using the material samples. This increases the complexity, similar to when words are put together into sentences or when several instruments play together. The same complexity is seen when materials are combined in a finished design with form and function. Where, in the previous phases, the narrative lies in the creation of the individual material, the narrative now lies in the composition of materials. These compositions appear as visual statements that are influenced by the words they appear with.
Phase 5: Conclusions
The final part of the experiment consists of a conclusion on the different phases. Reflection on action is used to formulate six insights (10). The first three relate to content in relation to the purpose of the experiment; the focus is on how the CMF designer uses materials to create visual narratives and whether other people read the narratives according to the designer’s intentions. The next three insights relate to the methods used in the experiment.
1: There is alignment between the principles of the analysis of the students’ work and the designer’s way of expressing ‘wild’ and ‘mild’ in the experiment. However, the analysis shows that the principles are not conclusive but have a more general nature of guidelines.
2: There is predominantly consistency between the designer’s and the test persons’ interpretation of the narratives in the material samples. The continuums of ‘mild’ to ‘wild’ are very alike. The additional expressions are more ambiguous. Most times, the test persons choose words with meanings that come close to the designer’s choice of words. In some cases, test person’s choose words with contradictive meanings.
3: The final work with material compositions proves to be where the narrative unfolds the most. When the various material samples are put into play with each other, the complexity increases. It could be interesting to do a second roll of the phases, so that the material compositions would undergo an analysis based on the index cards and test persons’ interpretations.
4: Working with constant parameters such as leather, weaving and stripe can be compared to a creative constraint, forcing the designer to create entirely new expressions. The parameters could be changed and either narrowed down or broadened. What would happen to the experiment and the narrative if it had to be expressed only in black and white or if the stripe should be a straight line? Or what would happen if more materials were included?
5: The index cards are useful for the designer to distance herself from the material samples and look more objectively at what is present. They are easy to complete; however, the collection of samples and associated index cards become very personal as it is the designer’s own experience that is registered under Designerly Aesthetics. They could, with advantage, be developed and involve other approaches for examples semiotic signs.
6: In phase 3, where other people are involved, one could question the method of giving the test person a number of words to choose from. Does this affect the test person’s choice? Conversely, if the person has to find words himself, will he then be limited by his own vocabulary?
The work with the project Narrating Material Aesthetics lies in the intersection of a number of design research fields: storytelling, material, aesthetics and design processes. It is a complex field that calls for more and more in-depth studies. But the project invites us to consider the work on the material and the appearance of design as being more than just styling. Material experiences can be the basis for deep, sensory experiences and, like the great stories in life, they help shape our reality as the designer narrates them with careful attention.
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