There is nothing closer to the big bang of design, to its prime reason to exist, than objects that deal with self-preservation. Created to protect body and mind from dangerous or stressful situations, convey information, promote awareness, and provide a sense of comfort and security, these objects offer not only efficiency and reliability, but also grace under pressure. Whether they are injection-molded with advanced materials or assembled with found parts and powered by a hand crank, they are arresting. Recently, a number of essays have appeared on the aesthetics of safety and surveillance.1 They cite armor and the fortress as metaphors for human response in the age of guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Pressure is around every corner, and human resilience necessary for survival can be surprising.
Such resilience reminds us of how powerful we can be. How safe we are depends on our perception of what is at hand to protect us. We may bristle at the exquisiteness of these morbidly attractive tools for emergency situations because we do not have any overpowering need to use them. They allow us to embrace our fears.
Safety is an instinctive need that has guided human choices throughout history. Like love, it is a universal feeling and, as such, has inspired endless analytical thinking and motivated science, literature, religion, and art. On our sleeves we wear not only our hearts but also big red panic buttons. As often happens with basic tenets of human nature, no definition of safety can be more powerful than the one each of us carries inside. In the interest of discourse, however, at least one interpretation can prove useful. The Maslow Hierarchy of Needs,2 for example, is a five-layer model of psychological behavior, developed around the middle of the twentieth century. It places the need for safety second only to the need for food, water, shelter, warmth, and sex. Safety here means security, stability, and freedom from fear. After safety comes the need to love and be loved, to belong in a couple, a family, a group of friends or like-minded people. Then follows self-esteem, including the longing to achieve recognition and respect; and, finally, self-actualization, which includes the desire to pursue one’s talent and fulfill one’s creativity. In Maslow’s model, the satisfaction of one layer of needs is necessary to move on to the next. One might argue, and history has proven, that sometimes a strength in one area can help deal with a dramatic need in another - for instance, the desperate and undying solidarity of a group under duress can help the individuals survive with scant food, water, and warmth, and in conditions of extreme danger. The path of ascension toward self-actualization, and the stress on our neediness help us better understand what we are protecting and why Maslow’s hierarchy could be adopted as a basic textbook on human-centered design.
The objects selected for this volume, while not following the precise hierarchy of Maslow’s thesis, relate to all sections of his theory, thus embracing all of human nature, as only design can do. They were selected because they are great designs. They all display a remarkable economy of thought and materials, achieved because of the clarity of their goals. They work well and are easy to use. When they do not work in the traditional sense of the word, they contribute a valuable commentary to our thinking about design and safety. Finally, they are beautiful and meaningful, each in a different way, and they all show the intelligence and talent of their designers. They are arranged in chapters according to what they are meant to protect, each chapter covering a wide gamut of social and economic circumstances so as to better highlight designers’ approach to safety.
The plate section opens with several examples of shelters and protective objects, ranging from temporary housing for refugees and disaster victims to camouflage - a shield from pervasive surveillance - to examples of psychological protection against anxiety and stress. Shelter is followed by “Armor”, which includes several examples of objects designed to protect the body from visible and invisible threats, from shark bites to the HIV virus and the sun’s rays. The third section, Property, is a survey of methods of defending our belongings, from our buildings and our purses to our individual or group identity. Section four, Everyday, includes responses to both mundane and serious problems from all over the world, from blisters caused by new shoes to the seventy-one percent of Britons over fifty who have hurt themselves trying to open product packaging,3 to the need to filter arsenic out of water to make it drinkable in Bangladesh. It is a chapter devoted to designs that center on common sense and address the normalcy of danger. The following chapter, Emergency, is a collection of objects devised for urgent use in exceptional conditions. The closing chapter, Awareness, centers on the belief that knowledge is safety; diverse examples include medicine prescription bottles, night lights, and de-mining equipment.
For every object designed with safety in mind, there is a corresponding fear. Conversely, for almost every fear, there is at least one object designed to allay the apprehension. Fear is a powerful motor of invention. Fears are as basic as needs and as innumerable. 4 The need for clarity and information can be read as fear of the dark and of the unknown and unexpected. Fear of visibility can be relieved by camouflage, while fear of invisibility can be eased by reflective tape and fluorescent orange vests. Fear of disease and contagion has initiated the redesign of clothing and of personal accessories. Fear of the elements - floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, or fires - has informed much of the evolution of architecture and territorial planning, not to mention the design of products to address situations of danger and emergency. On the other hand, fear of not having enough water to drink or warmth to sustain life - the fear of the absence as opposed to the excessive presence of the elements - has also generated new design ideas.
The incidence of fear highlights the fact that safety is not only a physical need, but also a pervasively psychological one. In certain circumstances, fear can quickly grow into phobia. A big scare can lead to design improvements, as happened after a few episodes of “supermarket terrorism” in the United States and other parts of the world in the early 1990s. The criminals who had poisoned food by injecting toxic substances through the packaging were rendered harmless by the redesign of the same packaging.
Several objects exist that speak directly to our paranoia, such as parachutes for tall buildings, a consequence of the shock of 9/11, or lead aprons meant to protect our groin from the electromagnetic field generated by the computer on our desk. The recent argument against SUV’s interestingly points to the existence of passive and active safety,5 and shows how misguided we can be in our attempt to find safety in size and mass rather than in the agility to escape a crash by rapidly swerving a smaller, lighter car out of the way. In response to bomb scares, different cities in the world have adopted different tactics. While some have opted for unwieldy armored cans in which to dispose of trash, Paris has adopted a bemusing opposite strategy: a perfectly transparent plastic bag hanging from a steel ring allows everybody to see everything, creating the sort of defensible collective space hailed by Jane Jacobs in her “Eyes on the street” theory. 6 The jungle of disclaimers and advisories that we wade through every day - about baby strollers, mattresses, gym machines, public bathroom sinks, buses and subway trains - is an example of overdisplay of protection that results in our indifference. This white noise of security is in some cases there to protect corporations, institutions, and restaurants, and is only secondarily meant for those who use such products or services. Safety can be underscored or made almost invisible. The choice is often motivated by commercial or legal reasons. The relationship between graphic design and safety is rich and straightforward. Good graphics begets clear information. In the medical field, the recent redesign of both the medicine bottle and the prescription sticker on the bottle implemented by Target stores all over the United States, for instance, is a striking example of the importance of good - meaning not only beautiful, but also intelligent - design. In many parts of the world, certain regions of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, but also in New York City, designers are using less-stylish, but equally effective and thus remarkable means to communicate the dangers of HIV/AIDS infection. Comics and vignettes bypass cultural resistance as well as dialects, and speak in a language that is not only understandable but also engaging.
Safety is not the same all over the world. In certain regions, what we would consider an emergency is instead an everyday occurrence. Israeli designer Ezri Tarazi explains that in Israel every house has a security room with a door lined with rubber to guard against chemical agents. Curiously enough, the same could be said of Switzerland and its 261,418 bomb shelters. Moreover, Tarazi continues, “Sixteen percent of Israelis have been directly exposed to terrorist attacks. I am one of them. Thirty-seven percent say a friend or family member was a witness to an attack. Seventy-six percent suffer from at least one possible symptom of exposure to terror, including extreme sadness or depression and inability to sleep. Eighty-two percent, however, express optimism about their personal future. Sixty-six percent express optimism for the state of Israel.” 7 In Italy and France, to give another example of diverse cultural attitudes toward safety, the enforcement of identity cards is considered an innocuous trade-off in the attempt to curb terrorism, a fact of life these two countries became accustomed to a long time ago. In the United States, however, the insistence on such cards is considered by many an unacceptable violation of civil rights. In Japan, walking around with a cold without wearing a surgical mask is an inexcusable violation of the unspoken rules of civilization. The fashionable response to this kind of behavior - surgical masks decorated with patterns and designers’ logos, sold throughout Asia - became famous worldwide on the occasion of the SARS epidemic in 2003. Resources and the economy can play a role in designing products for safety. In Cape Town, for example, the need to protect one’s home can be fulfilled by remote-controlled steel gates while in Cuba discarded refrigerator grilles are reused to answer this need.
The idea of safety changed dramatically in the United States after September 11, 2001, and reference to this event is inevitable in an essay on products designed for security. The idea for the present exhibition began as a proposal presented to MoMA’s exhibitions committee in March of 2001. It was entitled Emergency and it focused mainly on emergency-response equipment and tools. Because of the types of objects featured, it promised to be an awe-inspiring show on the essence of good design for real people. The show was approved and work began on it at full speed. After September 11 came the spontaneous and emotional decision to shelve the idea. However, mere mortals cannot stop ideas, especially when they acquire a life of their own on the wings of historical events. Before the end of September, the designers and colleagues who knew about the show came forth to support and continue the project. Instead of a quick-response exhibition, a team composed of New-York-based architect Gregg Pasquarelli, Rotterdam-based designer Hella Jongerius, and I began organizing a conference in 2003 in Aspen, Colorado, devoted to the theme of safety and design. Our initial proposal was to study fears, but gradually we decided to focus on safety instead. Two of the authors in this catalogue, Susan Yelavich and Cameron Sinclair, and some of the designers were among the speakers. 8
The conference helped MoMA’s team fine-tune the approach and the contents of this exhibition.
One of the issues that acquired definition at that conference was the difference between safety and security. Bruce Schneier, a writer and security expert who spoke in Aspen, provided a pragmatic and timely distinction: “Safety and security are different....The difference is random versus directed action. Safety is being secure against random faults, against Murphy’s Law...Security is much harder in that you are dealing with a malicious and intelligent adversary creating failures at the most inopportune times.” 9 In his words, security is a complex system that needs to be addressed dynamically, by building into it several “security valves,” and especially by allowing for human discretion and intervention.
We have come full circle to our own instincts as the best assurance against danger, and nowhere are our instincts more developed than at home, where our sense of safety and self-preservation is most acute, and where risk-taking often remains measured and cautious, usually limited to stylistic choices. It is where we are the most conservative, if not visually, at least morally. The home can be a womb, a bunker, a sanctuary, an escape, a fortress, a secluded window on the world, and the ultimate place for self-expression. There is no end to the list of possible metaphors. What they all have in common, when extrapolated from the ideal sphere that does not suffer from the wounds that our real domestic life might have inflicted upon us, is a sense of warmth, freedom, and hope. Humans will protect this treasure at all cost.
This brief digression about the home brings us to our - and designers’ - relationship with risk. Risk is mankind’s propelling fuel. We crave discovery, innovation, and inspiration, no matter how dangerous. The idea that displacement, sometimes even destruction, is necessary for progress can be found in many schools of thought across the centuries, from Heracleitus and the Kabbalah, all the way to Martin Heidegger. Designers are trained to balance risk-taking with protection, and to mediate between disruptive change and normalcy. They make revolutions viable, understandable, and accessible for other human beings. Good design goes hand-in-hand with personal needs, providing protection and security without sacrificing the need to innovate and invent. Good design, combined with good instinct, is our strongest assurance of progress toward a safer, more livable world.