28 September 2006

Notions of Quality (2)

(Part 1)

For convenience, I distinguish among these criteria of quality:

Quality of Conception:
When a product is proposed, is its function and motivation meritorious? The essence of kitsch is that it is created not to fill a need, but occupy some sort of emptiness. Kitsch I define as something that is unworthy in conception. It exists to create a distraction and idle stimulus of the senses. By virtue of its purpose--perhaps as a chit in a gift economy--it has little reason to be excellent. Or, in some cases, it is morally reprehensible in purpose--to be willfully vulgar, for example. Building facades erected to alienate and affront neighbors, or Hummers produced to advertise one's wealth and intimidate other motorists--these are monstrosities in conception.

It's more interesting, as always, to consider cases of flawed conception, rather than the extremes. In my view, quality of conception is where the good intersects with the just. A well-conceived tool reflects an genuinely ethical and sincere approach to the problem. The designer has done her research and is well aware of prior art. In the applied arts, quality of conception necessarily embraces not merely features of design, but also the precise application of the device. In architecture, the building ought not to be an affront to either its neighborhood nor to occupants. In the fine arts, the work of art ought not to trivialize the act of artistic creation (either as kitsch or as masochism or as recursive sarcasm.)

Quality of Design:
Much of very bad quality lies in poor design. Typically, poor design is accompanied by poor conception, but there are many examples of horridly bad design for which the conception was no worse than usual. A good example of this is Detroit's early attempts at small, front wheel-drive cars. Vehicles like the Chevrolet Vega were reasonably good conceptions--small, sporty, and reasonably attractive--but specimens of some of the worst engineering of that epoch.

Quality of Execution:
The purest illustration of QoE is when the same design is produced in many locales. The most widely produced complex design is probably the AK-47 assault rifle, slight variations of which have been produced in nearly every country in the world. The quality of a gun is dramatically affected by the quality of materials used and the precision of fit. Similar to this in concept is the auto design made by several different firms, such as the Renault 12. The Dacia 1300 (Romania) and Ford (?) Corcel (Brazil/Venezuela) were similar, although the Corcel had distinctive body panels. The Peugeot 206 & 405 are presently produced by Peugeot in France, but also by Khodro in Iran. Today, standardization of technique and terms of cooperation mean that the same design produced in several countries will likely be comparable in quality--the difference in productive regimes tends to show up in profitability.

More frequently, poor manufacturing quality tends to translate to poor conception and design of the manufacturing process, which has more recently come under the same intense scrutiny as the completed product. Prior to the 1990's, production was a highly idiosyncratic matter except for some aerospace and Japanese firms, and often taken as a reflection on national character.

Aside from exceptional cases such as these, however, QoE (isolated from quality of design) is a concern for projects whose "production" consists mostly of intellectual labor, such as software, publishing, fine arts, and publishing. It also arises in customized items, such as the construction of unusual or very large structures; or in services.
ADDITIONAL READING: with respect to quality of conception--"Lockdown at Ground Zero," James Westcott, NY Arts, Dec 2005 (via Wikipedia); "Abstract Art is Not Abstract and Definitely Not Art," by Fred Ross (edited by Iian Neill; please scroll down to article);



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