How funny is it that every day we interact with a myriad of objects and environments but know little about the people that created them—designs inextricably linked with our identity that you couldn’t begin to describe the history of. This past week, I was confronted with some these identities through a series of discreetly linked events.
On Monday, a professor told our class about the passing of Japanese designer Kenji Ekuan. Most famously known for designing the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, he was one of Japan’s most revered designers and responsible for countless influential designs. He was a giant, and I had no idea who he was.
After class, I did some digging and found that he was on the design team of the Shinkansen high-speed train in Japan. I had to do a double take, because just 20 minutes previously, I had been editing a piece about the rail system for my work through The Biomimicry Institute’s Ask Nature project. Previous to that, I had been reading an article about the train in Zygote Quarterly. I sat back, for a moment, basking in the delight of such a serendipitous twist.
On Tuesday, I was confronted with another one my idols. I’ve been watching John Stewart’s The Daily Show since adolescence. Though through a T.V. screen, he was undoubtedly a part of my life, helping foster my interests in politics and global development. So imagine my shock and heartbreak when I learned Tuesday night that he would be ending the show sometime in 2015. Granted, he wasn’t a designer, but he brought on designers, writers, artists, and activists. He gave them a national platform that they otherwise wouldn’t get.
Additionally, his mentorship of Stephen Colbert was huge for me. It was on The Colbert report that I first saw a 3D printer, and watched a pivotal interview with Senior MOMA Curator Paola Antonelli, arguably introducing me to the field of industrial design and changing the course of my professional life.
Finally, this week introduced me to designer Henry Dryfus. He was the man behind the Honeywell thermostat, the modern Bell Telephone, and mid-century tractor designs. My History of Industrial Design professor was lucky enough to be contacted by a Dryfus historian who then came into our class to speak. I listened as he spoke about Dryfus’ accomplishments and how they had impacted my life in small ways. Like how Honeywell, a Minneapolis company, was in my home of Minnesota and helped establish Minnesota as a major metropolis. Or how he designed tractors which likely had an impact on the way my grandfather did business having worked as a tractor salesmen in the Midwest for over 30 years.
I think it comes with out saying that we have to know where we come from. Not only as people, but also as designers. We need to learn from the work of the designers who came before us—their failures, their successes and their temperaments. What made them great? How did they respond to failure? Who were the people and what were the events in their lives that made them great. Knowing these insights makes us better designers, and more integrated into the larger community we are trying so hard to be part of.