The New Next: See Design Life Now

Inspired by a friend in the blogosphere, I recently visited the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan. Currently on exhibit is "Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006," with three floors of innovative design from around the world. I consider myself to be fairly up on art and what's happening in the creative world, but "Design Life Now" completely blew me away.

This exhibit shows that design is influential in and spans almost every conceivable industry. From health services to animation, engineering, advertising, and more, there is something for everyone. The exhibit is sponsored by Target, a move that's brilliantly on-brand and promotes the awareness that design is involved in everything around us.

I felt inspired before I even stepped into the museum. One of the exhibits, "Triennial Wallflowers" by Ken Smith, literally wallpapers Cooper Hewitt's facade with brightly colored larger-than-life poppies. Inside, the exhibit begins innocently enough: Chip Kidd's incredibly versatile book covers; Alison Berger's gorgeous glass work that play with light and silhouettes; Narciso Rodriguez's garments highlighting his impeccable seam work. As I moved through the museum, however, it became strikingly apparent that I was experiencing something much more significant than pretty pieces.

"Design Life Now" helps one to realize that almost every part of life is touched and improved by exceptional design. Architecture For Humanity is a global open-source volunteer network that solves crises through design and architecture. How toons educates kids about science through comic book-style stories. Hunter Hoffman and his colleagues designed a virtual reality game to manage the pain of burn victims by shifting the brain's focus. Organ Recovery Systems has designed a kidney transporter to extend the life and double the viability of its organs.

Walking through the Cooper Hewitt brought me face-to-face with some familiar cultural images as well. An entire wall offered screen shots of Google. The search giant made it into the Triennial because of its success in organizing the world's information for more than half a billion people. Each part of the company is brilliantly designed - its creative recruiting techniques; work environment (which further fosters creativity); company campus; and everything it offers us from mail to maps to shopping. Google has changed the way we access information and talk to each other. Deborah Adler's ClearRx presciption bottles for Target were also on display. The bottles' distinctive design with differentiating colored bands helps ensure clarity and safer consumption of medicine. I turned another corner and noticed a floor-to-ceiling black silhouette dancing on a hot pink background; the iconic white cables leading to the iPod, the device that changed the way we enjoy music.

I once heard someone say that design is functional art. This becomes increasingly clear as one walks through this exhibit. Ellen Lupton, one of the curators, introduces the concept of Design 2.0 - design that is participatory and invites people into the process. This is another way of looking at how design infiltrates our lives. Customization brings consumers into the design process.

In his November 2006 column, Paul stressed the importance of learning by doing, and being involved in culture when you're not in the office. "Design Life Now" is the perfect expression of that idea. If you run an agency, marketing department, or anything else, go see the Design Triennial which is on exhibit until July 29.

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