An Interview With Jay Osgerby.

The Renowned Industrial Designer On The Jigsaw Puzzle Of Sense And Memory.

In a conversation following his talk at "Common Sense," Jay Osgerby of Barber & Osgerby talked with Zachary Sachs of A/D/O about sketches, storytelling, and the senses. 

What did you think when you were offered the opportunity to talk about the senses, or "Common Sense"?

At first, I didn't think I would be able to talk about my work very easily. I thought I would have to do a thesis about “The Senses.” I thought: I'm going to have to do a load of research for this talk, and go into something which is not part of my work. But when I really thought about it, I realized that actually it's fundamental to everything we do.


And that's interesting because in the end you were able to talk about the senses almost completely through the prism of your projects.

That was the interesting thing, to me. That's how we engage others, through tickling their senses in one way or another. That's why I showed that particular work, rather than the commercial work – the production stuff.

One thing I would like to talk about, a subject for another series – is memory. And I had started thinking that memory is a sort of sense. Your senses rely on two things: obviously, your brain, because your brain puts everything together, but also your memory. Your senses pass through your memory bank before they're interpreted. They're recognized and then cross-checked against your lifetime experience.


It's like they're not really identified until they have something to be compared to. 

And that's what memory is for! It's true, and that's why smells are so evocative. smell of something, the touch of something is referenced against various memories... For example, if you go outside, and there's a towel hanging on the line, and it's wet – you can't actually feel wetness. We don't have a feeling for that specifically. But you feel that it's cold, or slippy, and it's your memory that patches that together to recognize "wet."


Everything is really this meeting point between the stimulus and your experience.

That's the jigsaw puzzle.

That's sort of what Harry [Parr] was talking about: about cueing people up to anticipate a certain flavor—

Yes, and that’s especially true with taste. Taste, it seems, is really fundamentally inaccurate.

Really the theater of almost all spaces where people sell things seem to be influenced by these characteristics.


Interesting, though, because we've come out of the era of minimalism, and the porcelain interior, which is devoid of any influence --


But doesn't that suggest cleanliness…?


Maybe but it also expresses a kind of hackneyed notion of the temple, the pure temple of materiality.


I was talking to a friend about that: a place that pretends it’s a non-place, that it isn't produced with some effect in mind.


It's interesting, isn't it. But people are wise to it now, I think. People have become desensitized, being presented with those type of environments. The question is: what happens now? Nothing is new, anymore, I think. Whether we go through the cycle of fashion again, again. Honestly, I'm not sure.


Did you train as an architect?


I trained as an industrial designer. It was an art school, so I did a foundation course and then furniture for years, and then I did the MA in Architecture at the Royal College. So I've done everything but I'm not qualified as an architect.

Do you feel a response to the statement, "design is a solution to a problem"?


Definitely, to a certain extent. It should be. That's one of its functions. But it can also ask questions. Design as a profession originated basically in the industrial revolution. And it was about giving a point of difference to objects that were mass-produced. Objects that otherwise looked the same. And once everyone had the ability to mass-produce these products, industrial design was created in order to provide market advantage.


But now in actual fact it's become much more than that. It's become problem-solving, but also hopefully... Well, I'm not really sure it asks questions. That's what philosophers are for, really. Or maybe it does. Or only in an amateurish way.


Or only as it becomes art perhaps?


Maybe. Occasionally it works.


Or maybe it ceases to be design at an equal rate that it begins to pose questions?


As its usefulness drops off, and the numbers at which it's produced drop off, it gains more of that critical capacity. There's that inverse correlation.

Are there any particular questions or exercises you do, or steps you work through, when you first have an idea?


One thing we have done recently for the benefit of the studio as a whole is to interrogate the brief, and write it up physically as a document, so that we keep coming back to it. Because it's very easy to meander – for a project to die because you lose focus on it. Maybe that's because there's two of us, so the project can be pulled in all directions. So we've come up with this idea of writing a kind of manifesto for each project, so that there's a touchpoint to pull us back. To remind us what the mission is, what the objective is, for each project. And that's a new thing.


Our productivity is limited. Because we go round and round in circles –


In terms of iteration?


Yes, in terms of iteration. Of changing our minds and forgetting what we had said before and dragging it on. And this is really a way of trying to energize the process more. We'll see if it works.


How recent is this effort?


Six months or so. There is a question, "advice for young designers" – and when you're in the position that Ed [Barber] and I find ourselves in now, you complacent to say "you've just got to be able to put your ideas in a drawing-book."

I was tickled by a story – the narrative that emerged out your design for the London 2012 Olympic torch's patterning. It had these perforations that served functional purposes for weather proofing but also happened to echo the Olympic rings – it was a back-story, or rather a back-etymology for the project.


Yes, exactly.


And everyone, it seems, is talking about "storytelling," but oftentimes it's a "just-so" story.


An afterthought. Or a post-rationalization.


But there's value in that as well?


Of course. Because if you're talking to non-designers, it can be helpful. Maybe as a designer you don't need a story, or that kind of story. You know what the story is: we chose these materials and then had to do this. But the other kind of story is so much more relevant to non-designers.


So if you present the Olympic torch and say, Look: there you are. That's it. They might go, Well... it's gold, it looks like a fucking cheese-grater. What is it? But if you say, It's gold because gold is the color of attainment, and this is everyone's moment to shine. And it's a tensile thing because we want it to be a baton and not a trophy, and it has these holes in it because every perforation represents a runner, and a mile. Then it's great. It's all high-fives all around.



And if you can find those narratives, it's important. Stories are great, because you get a lot from them, too. But storytelling is not fundamental to the design process. I think maybe drawing is.


And as you said, drawing is where your work starts?


When you say that people think that means you're some kind of amazing draughtsman. But what I mean is sketching, literally: diagrammatically expressing an idea. An idea, captured in a couple rudimentary lines in a sketchbook. And then, as fast as possible, to a 1:1 model. You can't understand an object as it will end up in space on-screen. You have to just make it, as quickly as possible.