Make BookDesign Studio 2016–18

Unit 04: James Goggin

Question: Does design imply the idea of products that are necessarily useful?

The unit’s question is actually one of 29 questions originally posed by Musée des Arts Décoratifs curator Yolande Amic to Charles Eames, on the occasion of the exhibition Qu’est ce que le design? in 1969, as documented by the resulting 1972 film for Herman Miller, Design Q&A.

Eames’s answer? “Yes, even though the use might be very subtle”

Mme. Amic followed up with: “Is (design) able to cooperate in the creation of works reserved solely for pleasure?”

Eames: “Who would say that pleasure is not useful?”

This unit will question divisions and overlaps between beauty and utility, and between art and design. What makes something useful? What kind of use is deemed valid in design? Should design solve problems, eliminate labour, and/or aid in the creation of capital? Can a design that simply makes us laugh be considered “useful”?

We will conduct experiments and make proposals, aiming to challenge thinking about utility and beauty, and subvert conventions of common tools, formats, systems, and objects. As graphic designers we become connectors between — and participants in — authorship and production, and this position allows us to challenge expectations and provide utility in unexpected but entirely appropriate, even delightful, ways.

Learning Objectives


For Tuesday 8 November Bring a favourite piece of graphic design (for example, a book, logo, poster, record cover, website, app, calendar, magazine, etc.) to class next week, ready to show in class after the unit kick-off. Think about why you love this particular piece (for example, the use it provides, its visual qualities, its emotional resonance) and be prepared to share both it and your thoughts about it with your section in class.

WEEK ONE: Tuesday, Nov. 8

  1. Lecture (see pdf notes)

  2. Post-lecture: In-class show and tell of favourite piece

  3. Describe your favourite piece of graphic design in detail, your own personal critical thoughts, what kind of use(s) it fulfills for you personally, and, in your opinion, to the design’s given audience at large. Was there a specific target audience in mind for this piece?

DUE WEEK TWO: Tuesday, Nov. 15

Assignment 1: Cover Version

Take your favourite design and make a new version of the piece by translating it into another, completely different format. Think about the medium and specificity of the original design, its original context(s), the intentions of the designer, and your own responses to it. What are some logical, or even surprising, situations that might change, yet still resonate with, the basic principles you have noted about the object? You might edit down the original design’s content or extent: editing is itself an important part of the design process. In all aspects of your process, visible and less visible, make confident, deliberate decisions with clear reasoning behind it (even if the reasoning is intuitive, emotional, improvisational).

DUE WEEK THREE: Tuesday, Nov. 29

James' second lecture

Nov. 15 lecture notes

Assignment 2: Useless Machine

Choose a common utilitarian format:

Analyse the format’s common functions and its assumed interactions. Research historical and everyday examples. Look at variations from different cultures, in scale, in location.

Make a new useless version of your chosen format. Abstract it, edit it, reverse it, alter its message, subtract from it, add to it, slow it down.

As you abstract/edit/subtract from/add to your chosen format, identify new uses for your newly useless object, and act them out. The new use(s) might be subtle, or emotional, or sensory, or they might be completely functional in a new, unexpected way. Experiment by exchanging useless products with one another, observe and document behaviours that result.

Either work with an actual object, or make a physical (for a physical object) or digital (for a digital format) prototype. The IDEA is most important, and a carefully-produced way of communicating that idea in an appropriate form.

For final review (Tues Nov 29), you will present:

Image at top by Bruno Munari