Designers Ellen Lupton and Inna Alesina combine forces in their book Exploring Materials. The book is a guide to using materials to their fullest extent, as well as a primer on design values and the overall design process.
The impetus of the book can be summed up through the words of the authors: “Materials are like words. The richer your design vocabulary, the more solutions you can see and express. There are no good or bad materials. Each one has its place, consequences, and cost.” In essence: the more materials you know, the better your designs can be.
Lupton and Alesina dive into the book with a series of experiments they completed with their students at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Students were given the challenge to “make a person comfortable while sitting.” Each student was given a material, including molded foam, yarn, rope, felt, corrugated cardboard, wire, metal rod, rubber, and plywood. From these experiments, students were able to learn unique qualities that come with their chosen materials and how these qualities can push a design even further.
The authors then go on to describe the design process by suggesting different frames of mind and practices that will aid readers. One of their most helpful suggestions is to “state the basic challenge in broad rather than narrow terms. Think about solutions that aren’t yet known. The problem doesn’t presume the nature of the solution.” For example, students in a class were asked to design a transportation method for shoppers to transport their groceries to their home. The students were not, however, designing another shopping bag. They were instead designing a solution. By avoiding the term “bag,” students were able to think of more clever and innovative solutions that focused more on the problem rather than the product.
The authors also discuss core design values, including sustainability, education, multi-functionality and simplicity, accessibility, and social responsibility. They also provide design challenges to readers that relate to each value, such as “Think of about areas of learning(math, problem-solving, language skills, music, art, health) and activities of daily life (dressing, grooming, eating, playing, riding in the car, sharing, cleaning up, being safe). Create an object that encourages creativity and growth in two of these areas.”
Exploring Materials is a valuable resource for educators. The authors delve into materials by listing their advantages and disadvantages, as well as current purposes of the materials and clever designs that have used them. The breadth of materials covered in the book is also quite extensive, from paper pulp, to leather, to foam, to wire. The book contains beautiful images of students projects as well as projects from well-known designers employing the use of the various materials. Through their study, designers, students, and educators can understand what material is right for the job and why.