How to Become
Design Literate

Rarely a day goes by when we’re not asked to buy one thing or another. From a conventional refrigerator decked out with the latest technology to an upscale humidifier drenched in vintage nostalgia, there’s no shortage of new and improved products we ought to have. Thanks to a growing number of marketing trends, we as consumers need to learn how to examine the design of products more skillfully so we can separate the wheat from the chaff.

The question is, how does the average consumer become design literate? By learning a few key design principles, we can begin to recognize the differences between good and bad design, and by becoming more discerning, curb our environmental footprint. With newly trained eyes, we can recognize the difference between innovative and obsolete technology, separate the enduring from the merely fashionable designs and spot the ingeniously functional amongst the essentially redundant products. Through the basic design literacy principles outlined below, we can begin to identify products that generate lasting value, instead of lasting waste.

There are five key design principles that can be divided into two categories: Internal and External. The Internal principles are: Contrast, Deconstruction and Integration; the External are: Notoriety and Relevance.

Contrast is about balance. The correct ratio of structure, form, colour, size and material can transform an ordinary product into an extraordinary one. Being aware of how this ratio works can help us choose products that will not only last a lifetime, we will want to last a lifetime—and maybe even pass on to the next generation. Contrast is about balancing extremes to create a dynamic relationship.

Artek stools’ simple form contrasted with the whimsical line drawings of the beloved Mummins conveys instant playfuness and elegance.
The Austrian artist Esther Stoker’s geometric installation with its structured & unstructured contrasts creates captivating spaces time after time.

The next two principles are about reinvention. They encourage us to seek innovative products that over time can become collectibles — many products that are good examples, are often highly sought-after auction items or kept for posterity.

Deconstruction breaks objects down: an existing product is fragmented into multiple parts and then reassembled under a redesigned configuration. Even a small degree of deconstruction can make a dated product highly relevant again. But deconstruction shouldn’t be done just for the sake of it. It needs to be natural and functional, not contrived and merely decorative. Knowing how to recognize good deconstruction will help us select a product that’s not only useful, but also desirable for years to come.

The Japanese fashion brand Undercover has thoughtfully deconstructed a trenchcoat, a hoodie and a down jacket into a single, multi-functional and irresistible coat.
An unforgettable and unorthodox Comme des Garçons campaign developed in a collaboration with Stephen Shanabrook was based on the deconstruction principle.

Integration is about incorporating previously unrelated materials, textures, finishes and techniques in order to redefine a stale product. When we apply the principle of integration we imbue undesirable or irrelevant products with freshness. The more unexpected the combination is, the more culturally meaningful the product can become. However, it’s critical to recognize an excessive integration from an unexpected integration: one is tacky and the other is both refined and aesthetically-pleasing.

Comme de Garçons x Nike’s lace-ups drenched in paint splatters exude freshness and originality.
By adding utilitarian stripes, the American clothing brand OFF WHITE has turned a traditional leather jacket into relevant streetwear.

Notoriety is not just about standing out—it’s about having cultural and creative currency. A large number of products are designed to generate mere noise instead of lasting value. Understanding the principle of notoriety means we can identify products that stand out for their sustained design integrity as opposed to superficial buzz that will be forgotten tomorrow.

With its iconic art collections, Illy has been reinventing the meaning of coffee not only in Italy, but across the globe.
For over 60 years the UK-based Vitsoe has been producing simple, timeless furniture that encourages us to use and reuse it, and ultimately to buy less and better and for longer.

Relevance is about distinguishing good marketing from good design. Most marketing makes products seem desirable, whether they are or not; being able to detect items that are genuinely relevant to our aesthetic, practical, and emotional needs can prevent us from falling victim to products that are merely well-marketed, not well-designed.

The Brave Brown Bag’s timeless and sensible design has been sought-after since its launch in 1996.
The uncompromising style and functionality has made Timberland boots must have footwear.

No matter what we’ll be buying next, if we learn a few key design principles and improve our design literacy, we can become more skilful consumers and inhabitants of this planet.


Time to Trade Booths
for Space Installations

In the age of social media, it’s become a thing of the past for brands to use trade shows to unveil new products. Gone are the days when attendees and exhibitors alike would go to a trade show expecting to get a first glimpse at the newest an industry has to offer. But if all that’s needed these days is a strategically planned Instagram, Facebook and Twitter post, are trade shows still relevant? Are trade shows needed at all?

Tokujin Yoshioka x LG light up Milano design week 2017

We’d suggest that they still are, but that the point of a trade show has evolved. Attending one is no longer about staying abreast of the latest product launches or the “booth hopping” approach of the past. Today, it’s more about savouring the whole fair experience. An amalgam of checking out a handful of breathtaking space installations, rubbing elbows with like-minded patrons, listening to one or two international celebrity speakers and sampling a few high-profile food vendors. It’s safe to say, trade show organizers have had to rethink their strategies to ensure their fairs stay well attended.

For example, attracting brands that not only want to show their products, but tell a relevant story to attendees, or even better, sponsor one, has become one of the critical strategies trade show organizers have been considering. Encouraging brands to show up with unorthodox booth designs worthy of social media attention, or inviting them to collaborate with artist collectives to help them design exceptional spaces where attendees can get fully inspired and rewarded have become the new holy grail. For trade show organizers, the idea of people leaving the show with nothing but memorable spectacles and unique experiences to share with their followers is now one of the biggest accomplishments that can be imagined.

Prototype Research_Series 02 Garment Dyed Dyneema by Stoneisland, 2017
Decode/Recode by Luca Nichetto & Ben Gorham for Salviati, 2017

Furthering the evolution of the trade show is the belief among those in the know that attendees are more likely remember a noteworthy space than a brand’s latest gadget. Norm Lehman of Syke Inc, a consulting firm for small businesses, suggested while looking at Swedish car maker Volvo’s booth during the latest Interior Design Show in Toronto, “Instead of showing off one of their shiny cars, why not sponsor the public area sitting next to their booth? Why not become part of something larger, a space with an experience that will stand out and be remembered?”

It’s not lost on brands or organizers that trade shows offer many expanding possibilities that need to be tapped into in order to get the best possible return on investment. Partnering with like-minded brands or creative professionals to design spaces worthy of collective awareness is just one of the many alternatives we’re starting to see. After all, trade shows have never been simply about launching new products, but new ideas, perspectives and experiences.


The Case for a Killer
Venice Biennale Bag

Every two years, thousands of journalists and photographers descend upon Venice to cover one of the greatest spectacles of the international contemporary art scene; the Venice Art Biennale. The crowds are not only recognizable for their stylish attire, but also for the various canvas tote bags nonchalantly hanging over their shoulders.

The Swiss Pavilion tote bag
The Collezione Maramotti tote bag
The British pavilion tote bag
The Venice Biennale complementary tote bag

The tote bags are part of a media package each participating country’s pavilion puts together and cautiously dispenses to its first VIP visitors. Each bag generally displays the name of the country with the title of the art exhibit imprinted on a white or died fabric. The crowds like getting these bags. The better-looking the bag, the more they like them.

Most of the bags, however, fall short of good design, even though they play such an influential role. During the Venice Art Biennale, they literally turn into mobile displays, visually publicizing each participating country—from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. It’s a surprise that the participating countries do not put more effort into designing more inspired, or better yet, inspiring bags.

It’s an even bigger surprise that none of the countries consider collaborating with their own participating artists to make the bag a corresponding part of their pavilion’s art exhibition. Instead of the free throw-away they are now, the bags would inevitably become highly desirable—an irresistible product the throngs of art lovers would not hesitate to spend a few bucks on. After all, who wouldn’t expect to pay for a well-designed, limited edition art bag from the Venice Biennale?

As an example, our Canadian Pavilion bag could have been designed in collaboration with the artist representing us at this year’s Biennale—the Vancouver-based Geoffrey Farmer. His ‘floods’ installation, with the elements of gushing water and wood logs, most definitely could have visually translated into a commemorative bag that was as refreshing as the installation itself.

In the end, we can’t help but wonder aloud – shouldn’t the bag no one cares about today play the paramount visual role it deserves to when the next Biennale comes around?


The Top 3
Art Collaboration Myths

Even though the marketplace is as saturated as ever and marketing budgets have been shrinking regularly, relatively few Canadian brands have taken advantage of the bountiful opportunities art collaborations provide, despite their success globally. At Arts & Labour, we’ve been talking to brand managers and have uncovered a few obstacles that seem to come up time and again when making the decision whether or not to collaborate with an artist on their product. What we’ve discovered is not that Canadian brands have a different set of concerns than international brands who are more willing to embrace the approach – instead, we found their top concerns were often based on lack of exposure to art collaborations and even more often, out and out myths. Naturally, we’d to take the opportunity to discuss those. Here are the top three.

Frank Gehry’s Crosscheck series of Bentwood furniture for Knoll
Frank Gehry’s Wiggle Chair

Myth No. 1: Art collaborations are costly.
Just as Frank Gehry, the celebrated Canadian architect once said, “You can do great architecture for the same cost as crappy buildings,” collaborating with an artist is not about having deep pockets, it’s about having vision.

To illustrate Gehry’s theory, consider that manufacturing a limited-edition run of art-inspired watering cans designed by a buzz-worthy artist will most likely cost the same as manufacturing a series of conventional watering cans. But as you can imagine, the social media leverage and resulting sales would be far from similar.

Keeping costs manageable comes down to conceiving the right art collaboration idea to achieve the most beneficial effect within brand’s given budget and requirements. Just as Mr. Gehry advises working with the right architect for a building, we’d recommend working with the right creative director for an art collaboration. In both cases, you’re hiring a creative professional who is capable of guiding one through the complexities of the process from start to finish effectively, successfully and fiscally responsibly.

Comme des Garçons x Nke
Gucci x Comme des Garçons
Supreme x Comme des Garçons
Supreme x Louis Vuitton

Myth No. 2: Art collaborations are gamble.
For many brands who are accustomed to using marketing to stimulate sales, collaborating with an artist seems too filled with unknowns to provide a reliable return on investment.

What they may not realize is that developing an effective art collaboration, like all good business, is based on a solid strategy that’s followed through with great ideas and strong execution. Using ourselves as an example, Arts & Labour looks to art collaboration successes worldwide as a guide and employs proven techniques to achieve a great result; we use what we call “modules” to break down the process and help guide brand managers and product designers. While our tactical modules help uncover a brand’s needs and wants, our creative modules help define a collaborative strategy to inject a product with the most inherent newsworthiness and appeal. With the right process, creativity does not have to equate to risk.

Myth No. 3: Art collaborations are for luxury brands only.
Perhaps it’s because the most celebrated and memorable art collaborations of late have come from luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Comme des Garcons, but many brands assume the approach is too avant-garde for them, or even “out of their league.”

illy art cup collection x Gillo Dorfless
Illy art collection x Dasha Zaichanka

Nonsense. Developing an art collaboration is an essential way for brands of all kinds to ensure consumers see their product with fresh eyes. For instance, Illy, the Italian coffee company, uses art collaboration as a way to help them de-commodify their offering. Whether it’s a coffee cup, a can of beans or a trade booth, Illy is a brand that takes full advantage of collaborating with artists as a way to stay relevant, top of mind and most of all, inspiring.

As Rachel Somers Miles wrote in her Huffington Post article called “Collaboration Validation,” “Focusing on culture, by developing brand-artist collaborations, is a way of building authentic relationships with audiences that may be hard to connect with. Brands need to work with artists, whose relationships with consumers come from consumers’ genuine excitement.” Indeed.

We wish you plenty of courage to crush each obstacle that stands between your brand and your next art-fusion collaboration.


Work Clothes, Reimagined

Imagine walking into a clothing shop and wanting pretty much everything there—only nothing is for sale. No, this isn’t a fashionista’s nightmare, it’s WORKWEAR, a travelling exhibition produced by the Triennale di Milano and curated by Italian designer Alessandro Guerriero. Imaginative, stylish and utterly original and unusual, it’s a collection of whimsical work outfits one has no choice but to fall in love with—and rightly so. The exhibit features clothes for a “Vegetable Ice Cream Man”, a “Cloud Hunter”, and a “Researcher of the Divine.” These are uniforms for occupations you may say have never existed and perhaps never will, yet they help us examine how work clothes can be transformed from protective gear and symbols of a profession, into the expression of individual identity. All 40 thought-provoking examples were designed by creative professionals from a wide range of disciplines; art, architecture, design and fashion.


Fashion, despite its flamboyant reputation, tends to prefer predictability and safety. It favours flooding the marketplace with a singular “look” and merchandise that’s surprisingly similar to the competition’s. Taking unexpected risks can come with pricey consequences––but so can boundless rewards. Clearly Allessandro Guerriero, the Italian designer and curator of the WORKWEAR exhibit, has taken plenty of them. However, by collaborating with people like the internationally renowned artist and designer Faye Toogood as well as fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood and Issey Miyake, he’s managed to transform the potential risks into definite rewards.

Not unexpectedly, the exhibition has been a success since its opening at Milano’s Triennale in 2014. Making its way to New York and now Toronto, the exhibit continues its dialogue on the value of design, in the fields that Italy truly excels. For the Milano Triennale, it’s the first in a series of projects bringing art, architecture, design and fashion together. Hopefully brands of all kinds will soon join this incredible collaborative platform where good design and art meet and create something truly spectacular.

The travelling exhibition was also produced with the Associazione Tam Tam, who made the clothes with the assistance of the Arkadia, a nonprofit organization. The exhibition is on display at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, Ontario until April 23, 2017.


The New Currency: Creative Vision

Last fall, the BMW Group published the fourth edition of its Independent Collectors’ Art Guide. Like many luxury brands, the German carmaker has been busy developing a variety of partnerships with the arts in their ambition to consistently remain culturally and socially relevant. It’s a true balancing act, nurturing that delicate relationship between commercial and creative vision. Getting involved in art collaborations and art partnerships with emerging and established contemporary artists or institutions has become quite a skilled endeavor among the world’s most prestigious brands. But why, we wonder, do only luxury brands seem to take advantage of the power of art for its instant injection of relevance, interest and “nowness”?

Olafur Eliasson BMW H2R, 2007
Jeff Koons BMW M3GT2, 2010

The BMW Art Guide is a collaborative publication between the German luxury carmaker and Independent Collectors of contemporary art, presenting 256 private yet publicly accessible art collections, large and small, famous and unknown, across 180 cities and 43 countries. It started in 2012 to simply gather and enlist privately owned contemporary art collections with public access around the world. The result was a well-designed, pocked-sized publication that has, according to the BMW Group, become the go-to-guide to discover new art collections in the most diverse settings on the planet. And so, the concept of “art experience collecting” was born.

BMW’s first foray into the arts dates back to 1975 when the French auctioneer and racecar driver Hervé Poulain commissioned the American artist (and personal friend), Alexander Calder, to paint his racecar. The result was to become the very first BMW Art Car. Since then, a number of well-known artists like Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons have joined the ranks of the BMW Art Cars Project’s featured artists. BMW Art Cars initially only appeared at car races, without any public participation, so to speak. Only later, as the public’s interest in contemporary art and artists grew, the art collaborations started to take a different shape; they soon began serving as travelling advertisements, reinforcing BMW’s elevated image and borrowing the cache of the many rock-star artists they collaborated with.

Nowadays, it’s a known fact that the tighter brands are able to align their commercial and creative visions, the more original and desirable they become. Yet, at Arts & Labour we can’t stop asking two simple questions. First, why aren’t more brands, high-end or not, taking advantage of the art collaborative model that has proven time and time again to work for the BMW Group and a handful of other savvy brands so effectively and for so long?

Second, why do brands who do not have creative visionaries the caliber of Herve Poulain in-house, not make a point of outsourcing the creative vision they so desperately need to succeed? Why are they not aligning their marketing and product development teams to bring their creative and commercial visions together to reach their full capacities?

The BMW Art Guide can be purchased directly via Amazon or as an Ebook download.


An Inspiring Product is Better than Inspiring Marketing

Brands that recognize the value of fostering not only a commercial vision, but a creative one have been leading the way of late. Take for instance, the continuing success of the London-based Cambridge Satchel Company. Founded in 2008 and celebrated intensively ever since for its locally handmade and globally desired bags —a result of not only hiring the best-of-the-best British leather workers, but also their strategy of continuously collaborating with a handful of cutting-edge designers and relevant bloggers. Or Supreme, the New York based skateboarding shop, founded in 1994, and notorious for its many sold-out international capsule collaborations with artists. Or Artek, the ultra-innovative Finish design company founded in 1935 by two visionaries who, just like the founders of the previous two brands, believed in a synthesis of the arts with technology, architecture, design and lifestyle at large. The successes of each of these three brands have been remarkable. At Arts & Labour, we relish their ability to invent and reinvent their products through art and serving them up in a way the world simply can’t get enough of.

Artek x Tobias Rehberger
Artek x Kvadrat x Raf Simons

So. What’s the magic formula?
To start, it’s best to look inward and see if the formula you’re currently following is actually one for mediocrity. More than ever, brands need to cultivate their own creative vision to be able to achieve their commercial vision. Yet for many brands, their creative vision, for various reasons, only goes so far. This often translates to working with an advertising agency to help develop glossy ad campaigns to make their products seem inspiring.

What Supreme, Artek and The Cambridge Satchel Company have in common is that their creative visions and commercial strategies are equally robust and most importantly, they’re intertwined. They’ve invested in reinforcing their already well-designed products with a continuous cycle of art collaborations, be it with architects, artists, designers, photographers, musicians or bloggers to continually ensure their products don’t need to be made to seem inspiring by marketing; they actually are inspiring. All three brands collaborate with creative talents who are naturally adept at recognizing what society craves and end up with buzzy products that sell themselves.

In our next post, we delve more into the subject of creative vision and explore a brand that leveraged theirs to its benefit for over 40 years: BMW. Until then.


The Principles of Staying Relevant

How many brands today can claim they’re striving for better rather than newer? Vitsoe, a British furniture manufacturer founded by Niels Vitsoe in 1959 in Germany has been obsessed with nothing but being better for the past 57 years.

Braun razon designed by Rahms
Radio designed by Rams

As strange as it may sound, the brand was first and foremost created for Dieter Rams, a German furniture designer known for his pioneering solutions that helped transform his then employer, Braun, into a global consumer electronics brand. But ultimately, Vitsoe was born out of a collaborative spirit among a group of open-minded and imaginative professionals and friends. This was an era when design collaborations weren’t the movement they are today, but simply a pragmatic way of doing things. Vitsoe’s original founders, Niels Vitsoe and Otto Zapf, along with Braun’s founders (and Rams’ employers), Erwin and Artur Braun, unilaterally agreed that Dieter Rams’ secondary employment with Vitsoe would only benefit both brands. Dieter Rams went on to work for these two companies side-by-side, and as he likes to point out, “… only for these two companies.”

In addition to his seamless and irresistible product designs, Rams has been celebrated for his ten principles of good design. Our favourite at Arts & Labour is no. 10, “Good design is as little design as possible”, and no. 6, “Good design is honest.”

10 Principles for Good Design by Dieter Rams
Our suggestion

Despite being prolific for Braun, Dieter Rams designed only three key products for Vitsoe. The most popular, the 606 Universal Shelving System, is a modular system that’s fully adaptable to every single surrounding. The design is not only movable and adjustable, but also tasteful. Some consumers even claim it’s “highly addictive.” Now part of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) collection, Dieter Rams has made numerous improvements and adjustments to the system since its early days, but always with integrity to its original design.

We are clearly lovers of good design at Arts & Labour; but why, you may wonder, are we devoting so much thought to Vitsoe? Like other established brands that want to remain in demand, Vitsoe too may need to start addressing the desires of more recent generations, namely Millennials and Post-Millennials. Unlike Baby Boomers and Generation X, who have been captivated by Vitsoe’s good design, Millennials seem to be neither familiar with nor interested in the brand’s affluent history or its design principles. In fact, Millennials appear to be attracted to values that signify cultural disruption and activism rather than design relevance exclusively.

In our opinion, Vitsoe may want start expanding its company’s vision beyond good design and start celebrating the role of good art. Wouldn’t it be delicious if this prompted a new set of principles that focus on the benefits collaboration between good art and design can bring to brands, artists and society at large?

May we humbly suggest a new principle? No.11, “When good design and good art collaborate, it has the power to change minds.” The ever-innovative Dieter Rams would no doubt approve.

For more on the genius of Dieter Rams, see this recent article by Fast Company.


It’s Time to Reinvent the Trade Booth

As much as brands pour their energy into the things they sell, it’s a mistake to think that those products alone will make a trade show booth stand out, no matter how new or innovative those products are. If you’ve ever walked the dizzying miles of a trade show floor and experienced the visual exhaustion than sets in soon after the first or second aisle of product display after product display, you might agree that it’s time for a rethink.

Let’s put ourselves in an attendee’s shoes for a moment. What would one be more likely to notice – a booth that looks like yet another displaced product showroom, or a dynamic installation with a story to tell? A visually striking site installation with a narrative that demonstrates a brand’s environmental, cultural or social relevance, perhaps?

Brands traditionally think of trade shows as a way to promote their products to their industry. But if instead, we perceived trade shows as an opportunity to demonstrate a brand’s relevance to society, those brands would give people a more compelling reason to consider their products. Instead of just replicating a showroom, lets think of the trade booth as a “hook” and aim to reel guests in with a story that inspires.

Imagine if the famed Swedish brand Hästens left their stunning beds behind and instead collaborated with a designer on an art installation incorporating their iconic blue check. Or if Knoll collaborated with a sculptor to create an oversized mid-century modern Bertoia chair, large enough to walk under, Gulliver’s Travels style? Their booths would not only stand out, but also become something delightful to make noise about.

You may be thinking, “That sounds expensive,” or, “Only big brands can afford big booths with powerful installations.” But if you ask us, small is not the problem. Lack of imagination is the problem. The size of a booth does not have to dictate the size of our ideas, resourcefulness or creativity. Small brands have a tendency to – but absolutely shouldn’t – think small. Interesting ideas and self-assured vision have a way of standing out, despite square footage.

The American avant-garde composer John Cage once observed, “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” Yet, doing something unconventional to get noticed can be intimidating. In fact, brands (and the humans behind them) can be equally afraid to stand out as they are to get noticed. But if we let the fear of loosing existing customers govern us completely, we resign ourselves to the same-old, safe, cookie-cutter approach that is sure to exhaust all our tired eyes at the next trade show.

In our next post we’ll look at brands that have been courageous about taking on risks, have reaped their just rewards and are encouraging others to do the same.

hästens trade show booth
hästens trade show booth
Knoll trade show booth
Knoll trade show booth
ROBERT THERRIEN’s monumental sculpture
ROBERT THERRIEN’s monumental sculpture
ROBERT THERRIEN’s monumental sculpture
ROBERT THERRIEN’s monumental sculpture
Lee Broom LIGHTS exhibition display
Lee Broom LIGHTS exhibition display
Brunner group SEATING EXHIBITION display
Brunner group SEATING EXHIBITION display