Things & Thoughts

Learning from the Eames'

In February 2016 I visited "The World of Charles and Ray Eames" at the Barbican in London. I immediately thought, "What would I do for a conversation with Charles and Ray?!". Here's a list of what I believe we can, and should, learn from two of the greatest designers this planet has seen, Ray and Charles Eames:

Don't focus. 

Ever since I entered university I felt that I needed to find my speciality. What is your real passion? What are you really good at? Interested in too many areas maybe, I got lost between visual communication, negotiation techniques, research methods, computer science, marketing, psychology and communication. And with every new interest I felt guilt. How would I get real good at one thing, if I never focus? And sure, the Eames' had their focus. But they refused to stay within the frame of one area. Instead, they let one project inspire the next. The beauty of novel thoughts is, they don't believe in disciplines. Ray and Charles worked on projects for architecture, film, furniture, print, textiles, games, installations and exhibits. “We work because it’s a chain reaction, each subject leads to the next,” Charles said. So, don't focus. Just like in the Powers of Ten, but in reverse: Go deep into matters, zoom in, create excellent work in one field. And then, zoom out, look at the bigger picture and be curious to see where your thoughts can lead you in another discipline. 

Don't innovate.

For two years I worked at the School of Design Thinking to teach students to be innovators. I currently study "Global Innovation Design". Yet, Charles Eames said this: “Innovate as a last resort. More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other.” So, what now? Is it wrong to try to innovate? Before I decide to quit my graduate programme I want to understand the context in which Charles meant this. And that context is innovation as a grand gesture. Innovation for the sake of innovation. In my work as a design thinking coach and consultant, I hear many large corporations ask "How can we be more innovative?". Innovation is the buzzword of this century. But it shouldn't be about innovation. It should be about creating an experience that surprises and delights people, a product that makes life easier because it answers a real need or a service that you fall in love with. I still believe we should be innovators and inventors, rethink the world - just not in order to innovate, instead in order to improve, surprise, simplify and delight.

Notice the ordinary.

What made the Eames truly stand out was their creativity. They seemingly easily took inspiration from their surrounding and turned the ordinary into the beautiful. To the trained designer this is nothing new. We see the world as a collection of endless opportunities. However, I dare to say that Ray and Charles brought this skill to perfection. And this is what makes their work not just good design but accessible, human design. When we are stuck in our routines (some more, others less) we sometimes forget to see what's around us. Overstimulated with content we almost need to blend things out. It doesn't take much energy and might as well inspire the next great project - noticing and focussing on the ordinary is a beautiful habit to create.

Build strong partnerships.

If there's one thing to be learnt from the Eames' it is their strong bond, private and professional. And not just the partnership between Ray and Charles, they also pioneered in what today might be called co-creation. Working on eye level, including each others expertise, experience and opinions are values that inspired the Eames' work and designs. Charles goes a step further and almost defines team work as essential to design: "Any time one or more things are consciously put together in a way that they can accomplish something better than they could have accomplished individually, this is an act of design.” Maybe coming from a design thinking background where teamwork and non-hierarchical structures are emphasized and consciously worked on, I believe that in most teams, at work or university, we can learn from the Eames and aim for this enriching way of working together. Apparently, it's possible.

Work in 3D.

By now we all live in a (partly) digital world. And I'm noticing that at universities, even design schools, more and more time is spent working digitally rather than in the three-dimensional space. Ray and Charles, obviously working on products and architectural designs, were masters in 3D. But they also worked, played, experimented and communicated their ideas through prototypes and models. Especially today, creating 3D objects, is more important and more powerful than ever. Their three-dimensional work made their studio and house so interesting and today famous. Again, it makes abstract however genius ideas tangible and accessible. Trying to design for the masses rather than the elite, this was essential to their work. Only through tangible prototypes can we really ever talk about the same thing. My appeal therefore: No matter what discipline, be it education, design, science, psychology, we can and should all think more with our hands, use and build objects and prototypes, include our bodies as much as our minds.

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