A Cup Serves

Above is vivisection of the elemental form of a vessel, one of the most basic tools man has ever created. Arguably the cup is still one of the most used pieces of technology to date. It serves humans well.

A man named Richard DeVore taught me about vessels, and through them he taught me to design. He was both a crotchety old man, and a kind sage with a thin cigarette. He taught me design through pottery.

Does it allow for the offering or receiving of food or drink? If the answer is yes, then it’s a vessel. Yes, the form below could serve food or drink? How well would it serve it? Poorly.

There is no question here. Design should have an opinion about service to humans. Design should have an opinion about it’s ethic. If you buy the premise that there is no "not design", but just poor design and good design as I do, then I suggest that design cannot be totally benign either. It has an ethic and that ethic is either toward good or toward harm.

Most designed objects and tools rest very near the middle of this spectrum. The difference between a reasonably good cup and a reasonably harmful cup is that the good cup might have rounded edges to keep the cup from chipping and feel less harsh in the hands. A good cup has an asymmetrically curved lip for easy pouring and reduced spilling when it contacts the mouth. A good cup might be lifted from the surface slightly (exaggerated here for effect) so that it doesn’t feel awkward or imbalanced on an uneven surface.

It’s not as though by using the harmful cup I’m in any real danger, but consider the net effect of using poorly designed products on a daily basis. Daily chipped edges, daily spills, even daily discomfort.

I’m just describing cups here, but what about the effect of daily engaging a social network? Have our new favorite tools been designed specifically to serve us for good?

Q: Do the apps I use add to or take away from the things that are most important to me? Q: Is it good for me to know all of the news in the world? Q: Is the unlimited, undying internet encouraging to me? Q: How would I spend money differently if I didn’t use the internet? Q: What’s the cost of my time, energy, input vs. the actual value I get from Twitter, Path, Instagram…? Q: Why do I have a love/hate relationship with my phone that seems to demand I pick it up every time I have a break? I don’t feel this way about my favorite cup.

Matthew Smith April 2, 2013