Where Value Lies

Filed Under: Inspiration , students , Article , Voice , critique

Deliverables are simply information that teams need to write down and communicate to others, sometimes inside the team, sometimes outside the team. They reflect decisions about aspects of the project (such as design review minutes); plans for work that needs to take place (such as test plans or manufacturing plans); and guiding specifications (such as a software requirements document). To be effective, these documents need to communicate the right information to the right people on the team at the right time. (source: ProjectConnections, a project management website)

I don't remember when I first heard someone demand to know the “deliverables.” It was at a meeting, and while I didn't understand exactly what that meant, I knew it wasn't pizza that you didn't have to go out for. He seemed to be saying that a proposal must contain some indication of tangible results, which I had assumed was self-evident. At a time when we are increasingly challenged to specify deliverables, whatever they are, it is useful to remind ourselves of the designer's initial concern with desirables—those aspects of an object that makes us want it. Although “value added” is a concept as commonly and recklessly used as innovation, do we really know how value is added to artifacts? Aesthetic enhancement and increased functionality are where designers will look first. But there may also be a clue in the passion with which people want certain things not for either their form or their function, but for their association. That seems at best to be an irrational criterion.

Well, design practice has never excluded the irrational. But today, in the light of such urgent concerns as Universal Design and sustainability, is it possible to be irrational without being irresponsible?

Have you heard, for example, that the Tiger Woods Foundation got $7,600 at auction for the #3 iron used by his wife to smash his car window on the night of his famous accident? If you haven't, no matter. It isn't true. But you probably didn't find it impossible to believe, because it's the kind of thing that does happen all the time; and the made-up price was right, or at least close to the going rate. Christies really has just auctioned off novelist Cormac McCarthy's Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter for $254,500! The author says he bought it from a pawnshop for $50 in 1958 and has since written all his work—All The Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men—on it as well as all his correspondence. The date is suspect. As far as I know the 32 was not introduced until the 1960s, so it may be a Lettera 22 he bought. But I doubt that bidders cared which model it was, or that both were designed by Marcello Nizzoli. A Google visit to a website called mytypewriter.com tends to confirm this. The portable typewriters for sale are organized by brand, period and author, rather than designer, recognizing that the primary interest for customers seeking an old typewriter is whether Ayn Rand, Hemingway, Kerouac or Updike used one like it.

Exactly what value is added to a product by its previous ownership? Everyone knows that a typewriter used by Cormac McCarthy, an iron that belonged to Tiger Woods, a glove worn by Michael Jackson, or a pair of slippers clicked together by Judy Garland won't win you a Pulitzer, get you out of a sand trap, warm your hand, or take you from Oz to Kansas any more efficiently than their quotidian counterparts. Yet such objects are highly prized and priced accordingly.

At the Museum of Modern Art's current Bauhaus exhibition one of the most intriguing effects was the viewer's realization that the artifacts displayed were made and used by young men and women who would later become some of the world's most celebrated designers. On the day I saw the show a number of German design students were there. Even with eavesdropping impeded by my ignorance of the German language, I could sense their elation and awe: This was the very chair Breuer had not only designed but sat in; this typeface by the young Herbert Bayer, although never produced, had by eliminating capital letters and lopping off serifs, become a precursor of modern typography. Well, I marveled, too, while wondering why the students and I were so impressed by such considerations, when the exhibition was remarkable in so many more important ways.

B&W exterior photo of Holsten's ice cream shop in New Jersey. (Flickr user craigcb)

Holsten's in New Jersey, now known for the final scene of HBO's The Sopranos. (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user craigcb)

A similar phenomenon was the basis of George Washington Slept Here, the Kauffman-Hart comedy about a couple who buy an old country house in which the first president was reputed to have once spent a night.

Not long ago, while visiting suburban New Jersey, I saw a tour bus pull up in front of a restaurant with a local reputation for hamburgers, milk shakes, ice cream and homemade candy. At least that was its reputation. It is still an excellent source of those comestibles, but its fame, no longer local but international, rests on other attractions. The restaurant, called Holsten's, is redolent of Coke dates from another era. It's wholesome Disneyish ambience makes it the perfect setting for an Andy Hardy movie. Only the most wildly imaginative location scout could envision this as a place where Tony Soprano and his Mafiosi chums would hang out. Nevertheless Holsten's was where the final episode of The Sopranos was shot.

That explained the tour bus, which disgorged a load of tourists armed with cameras, cell phones and cash. The money was for souvenir boxes of Holsten's chocolates to take back to England where, if the Cadbury takeover is consummated, chocolate may never be the same again. The cellphones and cameras were to let friends and relatives know that they were actually sitting in the booth where Tony and Carmela sat while waiting for their daughter, Meadow, or a murderer—whichever came first. As it turned out, neither came at all. The TV screen went dark, leaving both cast and viewers deprived of the coveted “closure” we hear so much about these days.

Whether it's where George Washington once slept or Tony Soprano once ate, what value accrues to objects from their previous possession or occupation by famous people? And can we consciously invest designed objects with comparable perceived value? (And if we can, should we?)

During my more than three years in the Marine Corps during World War II my room at home went unused. It could have been used for visiting relatives or guests, but unnecessary travel was discouraged in those years (the entire nation considered itself at war), and no one came. Upon being discharged I found that, although I had changed, my room had not; it was still the lair of the teen-aged boy who had left it. I explored the books, catalogues and posters, unearthing treasures not seen for years. Digging deeply into a chest full of relics my hand curled around some fabric that didn't feel good and whose identity I could not guess. When I pulled it from the pile I was even more puzzled. It looked and felt like a small mass of dirty rags. Although my mother was sentimental enough to keep my room intact while I was gone, she would never have neglected this! I turned it over in my hand, pondering; and then remembered.

When my high school friend Irv Leiner got his driver's license, we drove to Forbes Field in Pittsburgh to see Fritzi Zivic fight Sammy Angott for the welterweight championship of the world. Afterwards we somehow managed to get into Angott's dressing room, which was empty and unguarded. On the floor were the bandages that had been taped around his hands. We each took one. I don't know what happened to Irv's. (Or to Irv). Mine was what I came home to from the war.

I wish I had it still.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.