Design by Reduction

Designers typically react to a brief in an additive manner. In order to solve a problem they add something that wasn’t there before. It might be a tool, a device, a website, an app or a simple piece of printed literature. It might be something big or small, complicated or simple, but generally something is created that didn’t exist before.

Traditionally, that’s what creativity is thought to be – the act of creating things. Michael Bierut, a most vocal and deservedly respected design practitioner and commentator recently defined designers as being driven by their desire to create something where there once was nothing; as he puts it, “The thrill of making something”. By our nature, we creatives create. We bring into existence. We give rise to. We add.

It’s a definition I’m not entirely happy with because it suggests we cannot be creative unless we add something. Can one not be considered creative by removing something?

Over the past few years I’ve been developing a mild fascination with this concept of design by reduction. Can we designers start solving a few more of our problems through a simple removal of things, rather than creating more things?

This is not to be confused with the more commonly seen approach I’d call ‘streamlining’. I fully accept our racks of CDs have been replaced with pocketable iPods, and shelves full of books now live in our Kindles. Streamlining is noble, necessary and very clever, but it isn’t true reductive design because a new item has been brought into existence. A solution may well result in a net reduction of items overall, but the designer still answered the brief by creating an item that didn’t previously exist, and so approached it with an additive mindset.

The idea of true reductive design that so interests me is that in which a problem is solved without anything new being created. The designer must approach the problem with a reductive mindset from the beginning, and resist the temptation to add anything.

Though a project of pure fantasy, I’ve had a go at it myself. The first time was last year when I shared a suggestion for promoting and encouraging social cohesion by the simple act of removing the walls and fences that separate our gardens. That project can be seen here. I then just recently happened across an image which suggested another opportunity for design through reduction, and it set the mind ticking.

The goal of the petrol pump designer has thus far been to insulate the motorist from the dirty business of transferring fuel from a large underground tank into the tanks in our cars. And they’ve done it well; beyond a distant humming noise and the alarming climb of the digits beside the pound sign, does anyone ever consider the process taking place within that brightly coloured box when they squeeze the handle?

Perhaps we might consider our actions after a gentle reminder that petrol pumps are just that – petrol pumps. You see that belt driven component in there? That’s a pump. See that thing next to it? That’s an electric motor. See what it all does? It uses electricity to turn the pump that draws refined oil from a huge storage tank underground, along pipes and into a tank in the back of your car. That stuff it pumps, that’s petrol, that’s the stuff you burn. It’s come all the way from the Middle East for you to burn.

I find it quite a compelling idea. Of course nobody is likely to immediately scrap their car as a result of such an initiative, but it would act as a gentle nudge. And nudges are a proven technique in altering behaviour. It’s the reason behind the optimistically voluminous transparent donation boxes at the exits of museums, and why the staff make sure there’s a conspicuous littering of notes atop the coins before the doors open each morning. It’s a gentle nudge. Stick a fiver in. Go on. Others have. We need to fill this thing.

Of course there is one mild concern raised by opening the sides of petrol pumps. The safety risk posed to the careless and the beskirted by belts and pulleys at high RPM threatens this as a truly reductive design. If we replaced the fascia panels of those pumps with perspex, could that still be considered design through reduction? We’ve certainly removed the visual barrier between the user and the activity. Perhaps a transparent fuel hose allowing the motorist to actually see the fuel they were buying could be similarly beneficial. It might trigger the end of fuel being an abstract concept and actually make us think beyond the pounds and pence, if only for a moment but each and every time we fill up: “Oh my god, that is actually petrol. That’s dead dinosaurs right there”.

‘Removing a visual barrier’. Is that really design through reduction? Perhaps it’s a cop out? I’m still adding a piece of perspex to a petrol pump. A barrier has been removed, but not a physical one. So let’s keep going, just in case we’re not happy with it. Let’s create a solution that adds nothing.

Let’s propose a scheme whereby fuel retailers can get some kind of mildly profitable tax rebate if they install clear pump fascias and transparent fuel hoses to their pumps. Then watch as not a single one takes up the offer after deciding that they’ll lose more money in the long term if their customers are made aware of what they’re buying.

Then simply publish the findings of the scheme’s failure and let the press and the public do the rest. “Fuel Retailers Rather Pay Tax Than Inform Customers” would be a punchy headline. “Fuel Bosses Prefer Tax to Transparency” punchier still.

As much as I adore and admire the work of British industrial design legend Kenneth Grange, it’s hard for me not to think in many ways that he’s from a generation of designer that had it fairly easy. When he was asked to design petrol pumps, all he had to do was make them pretty and pleasing to use.

Today’s climate provides design challenges that are more serious, more complex and which necessitate solutions entirely devoid of glamour. Reduction may well be a perfect solution to a particular problem, but it’s without glamour. People pay for things, for new things, nice things, shiny things; they’re not going to pay to have things taken away. Kenneth Grange drove an E-Type Jag. A reductive designer would likely end up homeless.