This week was actually really interesting. Nicholas Ody who delivers lectures on ‘Design History & Theory’ at the Art School came to talk to us about what he considered to be ‘Great Design’.
I have always enjoyed history, I am one of those people who watches historical documentaries for fun and loves books about the war. If I had enjoyed writing essays, who knows maybe I would be an historian right now.
Oddly enough in all of my ponderings of what constituted ‘Great’ design, I completely forgot to look back. I was so busy looking for new things that were advancing technology now or existing products that I had seen in use, that I forgot to look back at the things which were ‘Great Design’ in their time. I overlooked the products and designs which had changed history and which had changed the way we have designed things ever since.
However, it was talking about the Volkswagon Beetle which interested me most. We looked at it with the question of whether or not something’s history should affect if it can be considered great and whether it should matter who designed, promoted or used a product?
For those of you who are not in the know about the Volkswagon Beetle, let me get you up to speed; the Volkswagon Beetle was first conceived in 1934 when Hitler asked Ferdinand Porsche to design an affordable, simple, functional and economical car for the people of Germany. It was called the ‘people’s car’ and was available to Germans via a savings scheme as part of Hitler’s ‘Strength through Joy’ programmes. These programmes were designed to win over, indoctrinate and distract the German population from Hitler’s other activities… Eventually participation in the savings scheme became compulsory as Hitler tried to gather as much money as possible for his war preparations.
Since then the ‘Beetle’ has gone on to be the longest running and most manufactured car on a single platform. Impressive. With the original Nazi logo replaced with the iconic ‘VW’, the history of the Beetle has been overcome and forgotten by most and it has instead gone on to be associated with a number of other things, and thanks to the ‘Herbie’ movies, it has become a popular icon. Quite ironically the Beetle went from being the car associated with the Nazi regime to the car associated with the hippies of the 1960’s, the ‘Love Bug’!
The question here is whether or not the cars beginnings in Nazi Germany should exclude if from being considered ‘Great’, and by extension should design be so closely linked with ethics that we base greatness not only the design itself but also on the morals of the designer and the environment in which it was made?
As far as this goes I’m torn. My heart is saying that of course design should be so entwined with ethics that these things matter! – But my head is saying that, that is not entirely fair, particularly in the case of the Volkswagon Beetle. The car itself was brilliantly designed. It was affordable, practical and economical to run and it was designed to allow easy and cheap repairs and it was air-cooled so that the car wouldn’t suffer as the result of not being stored in a garage. If I’m honest it’s actually a great example of user centered design. It was designed with the express purpose of making car ownership and driving accessible and thus opening up a number of leisure time opportunities.
It’s interesting to see how products once released and out among the public, take on a life of their own, a life I’m sure their designers never foresaw. It’s strange also how things so often get adopted by a cause or a group of people and how products can become icons associated with a certain thing forever. For example Apple Macs becoming the laptop of the creative and the hipster, the Golf the car of the boy racer and the Mackenzie tracksuit the signature of the chav.
I think perhaps what makes the VW Beetle so impressive is the way in which it has been reinvented time and time again, it has managed to escape its past and its worst association in a way that many products and often brands are never able to.