Chance as a Tool for Design?

For our latest project, the Lucky Break drinking glass, we’ve been exploring chance and asking the question, “can we use chance as a tool in the design process?”

Chance
/CHans/

  • noun
  1. A possibility of something happening.
    1. "a chance of victory"
  2. The occurrence and development of events in the absence of any obvious design.
    1. "he met his brother by chance"
  • adjective
  1. Fortuitous; accidental.
    1. "a chance meeting"

Even as professional designers, most of our ideas aren’t that good. We throw out 90-95% of them and try to focus on a few good ones, but even then, our imagination has its limits. It’s incredibly difficult to come up with something “new.” You almost have to trick your brain into diverging from its normal patterns.

So rather than aiming for complete control over an expressing idea, what would happen if we intentionally injected some chaos into the design process? Instead of waiting for happy accidents, can we intentionally bring about mutations, unexpected outcomes, and hopefully surprise ourselves?

Take Jackson Pollock for example. Most people know him for his drip paintings.

 
 Jackson Pollock in his studio (1950)

Jackson Pollock in his studio (1950)

 

He splattered paint in particular, but wild ways, never touching the canvas with his brush, not knowing exactly where the paint was going to drop. Pollock let gravity, motion, and the viscosity of the paint take control of his images.

The composer/visual artist John Cage took another approach to using chance in his art. While Pollock still had the ability to control the approximate placement of the paint on his canvas, Cage didn’t want his own prejudice of what something should look like to get in the way of what an image could be. So he turned to using random numbers to guide his compositional decisions. Possibilities over predetermination.

 John Cage,  10 Stones  (1989)

John Cage, 10 Stones (1989)

In this print, 10 Stones (1989), Cage consulted a Chinese divination book called the I-Ching to generate a series of random numbers. Cage collected and numbered a set of river rocks, a set of brushes, and a set of colors, and then used the random numbers to instruct himself on how to proceed. These numbers became coordinates on the page telling him where to place each rock. They told him how many rocks to use, which brushes to use, and which colors to dip them in. When Cage was delighted to see his own work, it wasn’t out of arrogance, it was as if he had just stumbled upon it.

 An example of John Cage's numbered brushes and stones

An example of John Cage's numbered brushes and stones

 John Cage,  Series Score for Dereau  (1982)  An example of a number sheet Cage followed for a series of prints

John Cage, Series Score for Dereau (1982)

An example of a number sheet Cage followed for a series of prints

Can we use this strategy in our design work? How can we use chance to make objects that are still functional? How do we apply it to the glassblowing process?

Of all the physical attributes of a glass that we could control— shape, color, texture, scale, distribution of material— we decided to focus our experiments by applying chance to one (for now): color. To work within the glassblowing process, instead of using brushes like Cage and Pollock, we decided to apply chance to the shapes and colors of small glass pieces melted onto the molten material. First, we blew large, thin colored bubbles and smashed them into tiny pieces.  

Then we melted down colored glass and pulled it into thin strings. We arranged all the strings and shards into bins, and used a random number generator to tell us which bins to pick from for each glass.

 Numbered bins of colored glass strings and shards

Numbered bins of colored glass strings and shards

 An arrangement of shards and strings before it's picked up

An arrangement of shards and strings before it's picked up

 Picking up shards and strings onto a fresh gather

Picking up shards and strings onto a fresh gather

 

After picking up the colors onto the liquefied body of the glass, also known as a gather, and melting them into the surface, they warp and twist to create unexpected patterns and textures.

 Shards and stings melted into the gather

Shards and stings melted into the gather

The process became a hybrid between the type of chance that Pollock used, which embraced the uncontrollable, physical properties of the material, and the Cage strategy of removing bias though random numbers.

We tested, adjusted, and retested our recipe to figure out the best number of shards, how big they should be, and how many bins to pick from for each glass. In the end, the procedure is never 100% random or it would be unusable, but inserting chance into the design process allowed us to decide which aspects to control and how much to leave to chance. Relinquishing control left us open to discovering designs that are more surprising than we could have imagined on our own.


Christopher Yamane is an industrial designer and Co-Founder of Super Duper Studio