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Environmental Whimsy

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Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
On Wooster Collective recently there was a short blurb about a North Carolina State University student named Joseph Carnevale who, under the tag, "U live and You Burn," was arrested and charged for stealing orange construction barrels and using them to construct a piece of street art he called "Barrel Monster." According to the police report, Carnevale "destroyed three road blocking barrels by cutting and screwing them together to form a statue," apparently causing $360 in damages to Hamlett Associates, the North Carolina construction company that owned the barrels. Both Hamlett and the District Attorney have asked that the charges be dropped. "'I kind of wanted the Barrel Monster back," [Hamlett project manager] Hall said, adding that "the monster and maybe a clone around the construction zone would be more effective than the existing barrels in deterring traffic."

We've long known that routine often becomes invisible. Everyday life has a way of filtering out the commonplace. Artists like Banksy, and now Carnevale, play off of this phenomenon, creating murals and sculptures that effectively cause passersby to do a double take. And as designers, whether we're working in print, digital, product or environment, we're largely in the business of making the invisible visible.

"The Promise of This Moment"is a current exhibition in Chicago with that principle in mind. The exhibition flyer explains: "This exhibition highlights the capacity of objects to transform banal and commonplace activities into moments of play, relief, beauty and delight. While the objects presented in this show fit squarely into the corners of the everyday—like buttoning up your shirt in the morning, switching an appliance on and off, or not making the bed—they also create new aesthetic and experiential opportunities within routine."

Michael Savona's piece in the exhibit, "Goose Cones" (above) is thematically similar to Carnevale's Barrel Monster, although more elemental in form and arguably more effective conceptually. By reshaping the generic cones we see each time we pass a construction site into orange geese, he forces us to do a double take and reengage with the space around us. While the footprint of the Goose Cones seems about the same as a traditional form, the impact they have on the experienced environment is much larger.

Many of the objects we use have been rendered almost invisible during the design process. Sometimes this is by design; services like Google are most effective when they disappear behind the information they serve. But other things disappear simply because the rough edges, personality and whimsy have been edited down to nothing. These objects have literally been rendered invisible by designers, clients and other well-meaning people, each trying to make the final product palatable to as many potential customers as possible.

So, as designers, let's not strive to create just another piece of street furniture, but instead to learn from what Barrel Monster and Goose Cones can teach us. Let's fight for whimsy, personality and the rough edge in what we do. Let's invite the masses to reengage with their physical surroundings rather than passively drifting through the routine of everyday design. Let's call attention to the things that have become invisible. That, after all, is what being a designer is all about.

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Nick de la Mare, a Creative Director at frog design San Francisco, has spent his career designing digital, physical and experiential systems.
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