Sunday, May 22, 2011

Designspeaks: The Felt Hat argues for design as a liberal art

A Felt Hat design studio project
By Barry Johnson

Sometimes we know exactly what we want, and if we're lucky, we know exactly what process we should follow to get it. The more closely we follow the recipe, the more likely we are to pull perfect muffins out of the oven.

But when we are trying to generate creative outcomes, we have to start messing around with the process.  A creative process often generates a creative outcome, we know, but we're less certain about how useful that outcome will be to our purpose (though presumably we know that an outcome that we're sure of won't work, either).

This line of thinking occurred to me during the Designspeaks presentation Thursday night by The Felt Hat design studio, specifically Don Rood and Nicole Misiti (Paul Mort was the silent partner in the front row). Several years ago The Felt Hat was in a funk, Rood  told us. The studio was doing fine financially, no small feat, but that success was built on its work on corporate reports. Increasingly, that felt like a creative dead end to Rood and his partners Misiti and Mort.

When in doubt, do some traveling! Off they went, at Misiti's suggestion, to The Netherlands, a designers utopia of sorts, and after a month touring around and talking, they came back to Portland determined to do it differently. Step one: Take a deep breath and drop the corporate report design business. And replace it with what? With a process. As Rood said at the end of the evening, and I paraphrase,  If all we are doing is making brands cool, we are underachieving.

At the start of the talk, Rood (the designated explainer, most of the evening) established The Felt Hat's primary guiding principles.
  • Design is a liberal art not an applied art.  That was number one, and The Felt Hat takes it seriously, employing anthropological techniques (interviewing, observation) and doing lots of historical research as a key ingredient in its process. 
  • Creativity is a natural resource. I took that to mean that the creativity of other people outside the project is important, but unlike a forest, say, it is renewable and even multiplies itself as it's tapped.
  • We never work with someone we don't want to have a meal with.  That one came with several corollaries: "clients are never the enemy"; never do a project for the money; the client should be a committed collaborator; work with senior management because they likely will get the larger visionary consequences of the project.
Rood and Misiti then went through three key projects for The Felt Hat. One involved designing a new bill for PacificiCorp, a seemingly mundane assignment that ultimately helped the company achieve a new transparency with its customers and established The Felt Hat as a temporary hub for information from the company's various departments. Maybe that adds a new principle: There are no small jobs.

The next was a project for Star of India tea, which really tapped into principle one and two -- the firm used Indian designers, craftspeople, artists and producers for a wide range of packaging and display products, work that instantly and authentically read "Indian," which was the whole point.  The firm learned that "tea is about time and relationships," and they deployed that bit wisdom in a multitude of ways.

Finally, the firm worked with client Sarah Miller Meigs on the Lumber Room, the home of a series of artist residencies and occasional public exhibitions. Misiti talked about research into timber practices of the past and how she used that research to design furniture, lighting and fabrics for the space, and how important Meigs was as a collaborator on the project.

A few more thoughts from Rood:
  • The work is more conceptual and stylistic, meaning that The Felt Hat's work isn't immediately identifiable as The Felt Hat work. Great craft is a baseline, but the concept lifts it into something special.
  • A joke: Q: How many designers does it take to change a light bulb? A: Does it have to be a light bulb?
  • "Design thinking is about one thing: The integrity of the idea." Which often puts it in conflict with political thinking, which involves compromise whether it damages the idea or not.
Design thinking, design process -- it's a matter of how far afield you are willing to go, how far you are willing to push the process, how willing you are to throw a lot of balls in the air and ... hope. "We re-invent ourselves all the time," Rood said, and that gives you some idea of where Felt Hat stands on the matter.

Of course, outcomes are important.  (The ones The Felt Hat showed were beautiful -- by which I simply mean appropriate, ingenious and elegant.) And maybe that's why process and product aren't necessarily polar; they mingle. We want a creative solution to be a "correct" solution, too, after all. But I think I understand what The Felt Hat is driving at -- the more open-ended and open-minded your process is, the better chance you have of locating a correct solution in the research, especially if the problem is complex.

And those smooth general words conceal a complicated tangle of ideas pursued, discarded and embraced.


1. Designspeaks provides a forum for designers and design issues. Once a program of AIGA/Portland, it is now an independent non-profit, directed by Eric Hillerns, though still connected to AIGA. I have been helping out Mr. Hillerns by serving on a Designspeaks organizing committee, which also includes Don Rood.

2. For more on the Lumber Room, here's Jeff Jahn's take for PORT on a recent exhibit curated by Storm Tharp. Here's a Randy Gragg preview of the same show for CulturePhile.

3. Ruud said that the name of the studio honors German artist Joseph Beuys, for whom the material had autobiographical significance.


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