Back when plastic was having its day, its aesthetic, that was born from its ability to morph and be colored, defined an age. It both reflected popular culture and influenced it. The Italian avant-garde movements of the 1950’s & 60’s played with new forms, surfaces, pattern, transparency and gloss levels that expressed and celebrated the aesthetic of plastic and marked its evolution away from the dark Bakelite of its early incarnation. Since then plastic has gone from a well-rounded, glossy and bright colored character into a personality that is still trying to find it’s place in the future.
Petra Cullmann, director of the K Show, the biggest plastic trade show on earth, explains that a better approach to our relationship with plastic is not simply “reducing plastic” but instead to use it more thoughtfully, such as to reduce the weight in cars, which leads to greater fuel efficiency. Considered use of materials can help communicate the notion of sustainability in products. Educating consumers on the value of a material made from post-consumer waste, or the value of a vehicle that weighs less than it otherwise would is challenging. How can we adapt the appearance of plastic to give it a higher perceived value versus the ‘real’ materials that are so dominant, like glass and metals, that would perhaps encourage us to keep our products longer and thereby reduce consumption. What is the aesthetic of plastics and what are the trends that capture the CMF that is in constant motion?
Transparency gives us confidence in our products, a feeling of achievement. It gives products an alluring look of partial visibility and it is one of the most searched attributes in design materials databases. A transparent window in a product housing allows users to understand its workings. A Dyson vacuum cleaner gives you an emotional reward and sense of achievement by showing you the dirt that was once on your floor tidily captured in a sealed bin. Transparency has functional, sensorial and emotional rewards. As plastics advance to technically challenge the properties of glass, so do the opportunities to create poetic color combinations through subtly tinted translucent plastics.
While some brands may not want to make a noise about their environmental approach to plastics, there are others that want to make sure these stories take on an aesthetic that can be appreciated by consumers.
The first wave of bio-based plastics resulted in a crunchy and brown aesthetic due to the mostly wood fibre content mixed with virgin plastics. Today the speckled effect is the ‘on-trend’ evolution of this giving consumers a refined update. But the idea of using post-consumer waste from engineering plastics in cars and electronics means it is difficult to get away from black and grey. Plastic compounders are now developing ingredients to give these materials a new aesthetic lease of life based on bright colors.
Ivy Ross, VP of Hardware Design at Google, explains that Google’s approach to plastics is one that gives tech a soft, human, relatable personality. In this group plastics take on a decorative and functional aesthetic–patterns are molded onto both rigid and soft plastics, creating sensorial cues that focus on tactility that feel like they are taking plastics into areas of emotional comfort.
Plastic plays to both the low and high ground in its aesthetic, from low-cost to the premium ‘unashamedly plastic’ of how Apple described iPhone 5.
The concept that plastics can be used to define a premium experience where the product is elevated rather than being covered up points to a future where plastics could be used for more durable products that we want to keep rather than treat as disposable. Sensitive design can celebrate the intrinsic properties of plastics through thoughtful treatment of their processing. As the contemporary cousin of ‘luxury’, premium plastics can be a very slippery thing to define. Many brands are searching for ways to elevate materials to this higher level but figuring out how to achieve this when specifying plastics can be challenging.