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Back in Black: industrial design


There is fashion, and then there’s timeless design. Objects of desire – as sophisticated and sublime now as they will be 10 or 20 years from now. When it comes to colours, however, there’s only one that is standing the test of time: Black. But what makes black so special? Why – throughout the decades – is has been considered to be the epitome of cool? Siemens Home Appliances spoke to a few leading young designers – in fashion and product design – to explore the allure of the deepest and darkest of all colours, and ask them to tell us about their own favourite black object.

Second in our series is Abidur Chowdhury from London, England, where he works for a design agency.

Q: Phones, TVs, computers, everyday household objects – why are so many of them black?

A: I think it’s the simplicity of the colour. A black product conveys the essentials of what it is, and that’s quite important. If you add colour without a reason, it can distract from the function of the object. But let’s be clear: pure black is really rare, and colour can give a product the texture it needs to highlight its functionality.

Overall though, it comes down to the universal nature of black. It fits in well everywhere, whether that’s at home or at work. Black either simply blends in, or cleverly contrasts with a lot of other products and environments. Black as a choice of colour is always contextual, there is no hard and fast rule when to use black.

Q: But isn’t black just a trend like any other colour?

A: Not really. Black is like a wave, it keeps coming back. If you remember about 20 years ago, when Apple started to launch products that were really vibrant and colourful? Now all that has faded away and everybody is returning to a more utilitarian look and feel. Of course, black may have reached a peak a couple of years ago, and design will evolve into something else for a while, but black is essential.

To me, black always feels like a starting point for good design, and that will never change, ever.

Q: Why is that?

A: Look at some of the colours that are popular now, like rose gold. That’s a very specific style. A few people will like it, but it’s not universal. Black, on the other hand, always works. Black is all about minimalism, honesty and simplicity. It doesn’t distract you, it focuses your attention.

I’m not sure why, though. Maybe it’s a physics thing. If you combine all colours, you get black. It’s one end of the scale.

Q: What does that mean for the design process?

A: All designs, ok, 90 percent of all designs, they start with the colour black. It’s the most contrasting colour, it instantly gives you a shape when you put it on a white piece of paper. It stands out the most. That’s also why consumers love black, because it stands out. It makes a mark.

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Q: And that’s how your designs start as well?

A: Absolutely. I usually create a first draft of my designs using a black felt-tip pin. I love to start in an analogue way, pen on paper. It gives me a much better connection to what I’m producing.

With computers, there is this tiny latency until you see your drawing, and that takes away the natural feel.

So at home and in my office, you’ll find these black pens everywhere, I have hundreds of them.
And I always carry an A6-sized Moleskin notebook with me, for when the inspiration comes. To sketch, this notebook is my go-to place, especially when I’m travelling on a train. Although I have to admit, more and more I’m using my smartphone to capture ideas, maybe with a doodle, a few notes, something that I can type quickly, easily.

Q: What do you think of Vanta Black, this colour that swallows nearly all the light? Will it have applications in product design?

A: It has its uses, but only in very specific cases. I think it was developed for telescopes, to make sure astronomers get no light pollution. That makes sense. But for industrial design purposes, it simply doesn’t work. It kills the form, there is no depth.

When you design, one of the beauties is how light creates shapes, even on black objects. With any ultra-black colour, you defeat the design purpose. You start with a three-dimensional product and make it feel flat, two-dimensional.

In contrast, that’s why charcoal is such a popular black for design. There is a definition to the edges, the highlights, it really helps to express the form and features of the product a bit more.

What you really want is a level of contract between objects that shows you their functionality.

Q: So finally, what’s your favourite black object?

I admit, it’s something I designed myself, a toolset called Instrumentum. I wanted to redefine the most common tools in the household – a hammer, a set of screw drivers, and by coating them in black oxide I really could reduce them to their essential. The colour, by the way, is extremely functional too, because it helps stop corrosion.

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