Why Design Needs to be Like A Quesadilla

Vancouver Designer Gonzalo Alatorre of Creative Engine

Award-winning designer Gonzalo Alatorre, speaking at a TED conference in Mexico last month, suggested design needs to be like a quesadilla. Where was the Founder and Principal of Creative Engine, and designer of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics logo going with this? We spoke to the Alatorre to uncover his motivation for making such a seemingly bizarre claim.

In your TED talk, you began by summarizing the history of design.  You said that it was born as one of the specializations in the division of labour during the industrial revolution, and that it was originally thought of as art.  How has the definition of design changed since then?

In my talk, I argue that design actually is not art at all, but that the designers were originally thought of as artists because they drew concepts.  As design evolved, however, it became less about being artistic and more about creating a way to differentiate between similar products on the market, and make some stand out over others.

At that time, production greatly influenced design, because there were so many technological limitations that had to be accounted for.  For example, furniture design adapted to the newly discovered ability to bend metallic tube in the 1920s.  Bauhaus students took this new development and built their design around the ways the tube could be manipulated into furniture, and the Bauhaus style was born.

Then, in the 1980s, a design revolution occurred that had significance similar to the invention of photography — the invention of the personal computer.  While photography forever changed the way we documented history, taking the role away from painters and sculptors, the personal computer forever changed the design process by speeding up production.  Therefore, the saved production time could be repurposed onto the creative side, and made room for more strategic design.  So, design shifted from being artisanal to more efficient and defined.

This history leads to the main point of my TED talk — that the inclusion of strategic thinking in design in the extended creative process, and the lack of limitations on the production side, have turned design into an essential part of any business plan.

You then go on to describe the way that design exists today between the object, the business and the consumer.  Can you clarify that relationship?

Without production limitations, and a very quick technological change, design considers the relationship between object, business and consumer.  For example, the design of an object must consider the production process that will be required, the role that the object will play in satisfying or creating a consumer demand, and the way the object will benefit the world as a whole, by improving upon previous design work.  This also supports the argument that design is not art because art merely exists as itself, while design serves a specific purpose — to satisfy a necessity and improve the world around us.

Another thing that supports this point is that design should never be considered a noun — it is always a verb.  For example, the hammer is not a design — it’s an object that we’ve been working to perfect for 2.6 million years, and counting.  This is not art, but part of our collective effort to improve the things in our lives.

So, how does all of this support your argument to approach design like a quesadilla?

All of this led up to the idea that design is the essential back bone of any business plan because it considers all the elements needed to create a product that serves a purpose and improves our quality of life, not as an art form, and not under any production limitations.

Based on this, I outlined the five characteristics of good design in my TED talk.  These are:

  1. Design needs to challenge and propose. For example, the architect Calatrava’s building in Malmo, Sweden is modeled after a twisting spine, completely dismissing the straight lines of traditional architecture, forcing all that see the building to challenge their own conceptions of architecture.
  2. Design needs to captivate on an emotional level. For instance, the well-known ‘I heart NY’ logo evokes a certain emotion in everyone about his or her memories or perception of that city.
  3. Design needs to be invisible. When design is done well, we see the object as the sum of its parts, and experience it as a whole.  For example, the wonder of the Eiffel Tower distracts us from its actual structural elements.
  4. Design needs to be accessible and sustainable. Whatever the definition of these two words you choose — accessibility in terms of physical access to something, or it’s affordability, for example — good design must incorporate all of them.  A good example of this is the iPad, which my three-year-old son picked up and learned how to use in no time, not to mention its financially accessible price of $500, much lower than the average personal computer.
  5. Design needs to express a relationship with the consumer. For this, I will tell you the quesadilla story.

My wife and I were having dinner in a critically acclaimed restaurant in Mexico.  To start our meal, we were served a complimentary amuse bouche, which consisted of a liquid quesadilla!  We were shocked when it arrived at our table, but once we tried it, we were convinced that it was the best quesadilla we had ever had.  The flavours were amazing.  It had the perfect corn texture, and a perfect epazote foam centre.

The liquid quesadilla was the perfect example of good design because:

  1. It challenged our views of what a traditional quesadilla should be and proposed the question: “Why does it have to be traditional, when this version tastes this good, if not better?”
  2. It captivated us emotionally. We all loved it.
  3. It became invisible. We stopped paying attention to its strange liquid form when our other senses took over.
  4. It was accessible and sustainable. It was produced cheaply enough that it could be offered to us for free.
  5. It was a tool to express the restaurant’s relationship with its customers. We all became instant fans of the restaurant, and everyone we know who has tried it looks forward to returning.  Also, it was a conversation starter about the restaurant itself.

There you have it — the reasons why design needs to be like a quesadilla, in order to fulfill its modern duties as a method for enhancing the relationship between business, object, and consumer, and for improving our overall way of life by opening our eyes to new possibilities.

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