“The tragedy of the commons is what you get when everybody’s individual best next move becomes the cumulative worst move for everybody.” – Brian Eno. (1)
(This post you are about to read is super lengthy. Heed my warning. Enjoy reading at your own risk.)
Over the last decade, dissatisfaction with prevailing attitudes toward the material world has grown tremendously in many members of public as well as various interest groups. Consumer society is the primary source of oppression that aggravate the quality of human relations, natural milieus and the built environment, including industrial products. While such a critique is not new in itself, it is becoming alarmingly inevitable. Insisting on the obligation for individuals to be responsible citizens, many have adopted attitudes and lifestyle that both foster and demonstrate various initiative of sustainable, deliberate consumption. It is apparent that political will alone is insufficient to abolish consumption behaviours that endanger neither human nor natural heritage, the notion of a ‘smart consumer’ – one that priorities the ethical and social qualities of the products procured – is of great concern.
Many businesses, in addition to undergoing legislative or regulatory changes aimed at making them ‘greener’, already feel the impact of market forces related to the changing consumption patterns of environmentally aware consumers (2). Some, of course, ride on this trend as freeloaders and merely greenwashing. Dr Martinez and Dr Poole also underscore the growth of ethical and political beliefs in a non-violent manner, the trend toward ethical buying confirms the existence of a vital dimension in the field of design. (3) Considerable attention to articulate between sustainable consumption and its counterpart, sustainable production, would yield significant insight into the complex attributes of the sustainable product, a concept that demands to be more systematically examined, particularly as it implies the notion of sustainable consumption. I became aware that, as a designer, I hold the responsibility to design the holistic system of a product, not just the end product.
Object As Meaning
We are always facing with the popular self-debate of ‘Need and Want’. What however truly matters is justifying need and to how much of design is pushed that changes ‘need’ to a point where consumers will say ‘i want to get that’ when they see it, albeit a necessity. Anne Marchand professed that ‘product quality’ encompasses concepts such as need and utility, in addition to the object’s potential to offer creative stimulus, enhance human relations and promote environmentally friendly practices. (1)
What is perceived by a layman in term of ‘useful’ is the initial purpose behind an object’s creation and the value of an object that is used as opposed to one that is not. ‘Useful’ therefore refers to both the designer’s intent or the perceived affordance, and the object’s actual use or the experiential affordance. (1) As Naoto Fukasawa wrote, affordance is a key concept in ecological psychology. Psychologist James Gibson coined this noun from the verb ‘to afford’ to describe the property of things at large in providing organism with perceived or latent potentials – ‘meanings’, ‘values’ or what Gibson termed ‘action possibilities’ – thus casting the otherwise passive environment in an active determinant role (for example, a chair possess an affordance for sitting). Affordance is something that everyone knows intuitively. The affordance we know are many and complex, although next to impossible to verbalize. (4) The ‘meaning’ of objects is also seen in terms of the object’s relationship to society; users observed a loss of meaning when the object’s primary function was pushed to the limits of hyper-functionality. A recurring critique of hyper-functional and hyper-specialized products appeared as a key issue. Do we really need objects with so many features, and must we have all these objects to accomplish our tasks?
Dr Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham proofed the point by highlighting the difference of fashion and clothing. There are various types of clothes, bought for a variety of reasons and purposes. Some are ‘basics’ and are worn time and again. Others are ‘classics’ and are bought for the long haul. The rest are ‘fashion pieces’ which stay current for a season before becoming outdated and being neglected to the back of the wardrobe. The differences between these garment types emphasise the relationship between two frequently confused sectors: clothing and fashion. Although their use and looks sometimes coincide, fashion and clothing are not identical. Fashion ties us to time and space, it is concerned with fast changing trends: it is transitory. Fashion deals with our emotional needs, manifesting us as social beings, as individuals. Clothing on the contrary, is concerned predominantly with physical needs, like sheltering, shielding and adoring. Not all clothes are fashion clothes and not all fashion finds expression in garment form. Fashion plays a major role in contemporary culture and incorporates among other aspects, namely, media, art, music, language and advertising. (1)
Object As Process
If you are a designer, it is often that we find ourselves brushing our hands over surface, knocking on any materials we come upon, and tracing our finger along the edges. The reason why we do that is that we are curious animals and we care about our surrounding. How much do you actually care? What do you really care about? Designing something is not just as simple as what you see.
The experience with an object undergoes multiple layers of cognitive process. Donald Norman, in his book ‘Emotional Design’, proposed that human attributes result from three different levels of the brain: the automatic, prewired layer, called the visceral level (an object’s temporal aspects); next is behavioural level where it contains the brain processes that control everyday behaviour (its essence, features and quality to its use); and the contemplative part of the brain, known as the reflective level (meaning as comprehended through a system of cognitive reference).
Visceral level is pre-consciousness, pre-thought. This is where aesthetic matters and first impression is developed. It is about the initial impact of a product, about its appearance, touch and feel. When Apple Computer introduced the colorful iMac computer, sales boomed, even though the other models contained the same hardware and software. When Volkswagen reintroduced their classic “beetle” design in 1993, Audi developed the TT, and Chrysler brought out the PT Cruiser, sales for all three companies surged. Like it or not, people buy on the appearance. (5)
Pleasure and sexuality play major roles in design too. Patrick Jordan interpreted 4 types of pleasure: physic-pleasure (body and senses), socio-pleasure (social behavioural and interaction), psycho-pleasure (reaction and psychological state), and ideo-pleasure (reflection on qualities and experience) in ‘Designing Pleasurable Products’. (6) But the challenge – does not just stop there – is how to maintain the relationship after the initial contact of enthusiasm. If something is made quirky where the quirkiness is irrelevant to the task per se, you will then get frustration and resentment. Designers Julie Khaslavsky and Nathan Shedroff suggested three basic steps: enticement, relationship and fulfilment, will make an emotional promise, continually fulfil the promise and end the experience in a memorable note. (5)
We think objects in its simplicity and moderation of design, is seen refraining from any premature obsolescence. When a standard or classic example appeared in our mind when an object type is mentioned, usually based on one specific object but is formed through amalgamating experiences of seeing many of the same kind, this concept is called archetype – “architecture of the typical”. Designers may often presume or underestimate the public’s intelligence and curiosity, producing banal, provocative objects; radical, alien products on the other. “Showing originality so as to win the marketing race is a favourite refrain,” says Naoto Fukasawa, “but the fixation with keeping a close eye on other products lined up on the store shelves results in the same kind of things being generated”. The approach of designing “different but not too different” products is justified by the alibi of recognition.(7) Despite an object in most cases has meaning for users when they were recognisable through characteristics associating to the archetypal object, I assume that this judgement would change, for valid considerate reasonings, an eccentric object holds a higher value in perseverance. It is as though you want to satisfy or please everybody, you will eventually be pleasing no one including yourself.
“There’s that George Bernard Shaw quote about innovation and being unreasonable. It’s a really beautiful thing to say. Because to do something new and truly innovative, does require you reject reason. And the problem is when you do that, the behaviours, what that looks like, can make you look a bit odd. But it’s true. I really believe that to do something new you’re rejecting reason.” Jonathan Ive during the his latest talk at Design Museum. (8)
Behavioral level is about use and experience with a product, which includes function, performance and usability. A product’s function specifies what activities it supports; performance describes how well the desired functions are carried; usability is about the product-understandability and ease of use.(5) Function comes first in most behavioural design. If the item does not do anything of interest, then who cares how well it works? Sometimes, why can’t we have the product does its core function well, instead of trying to please the lot by having many features? Core solution for core problem. “When simple things need pictures, labels, or instructions, the design has failed.” said Norman in ‘The Design of Everyday Things’. The instinctive perception is driven by both what the product allows us to do and what it reminds us of having done. “We need new structures (for our new behaviours),” emphasized Dieter Rams, “it’s the unspectacular things that are the important things, especially in the future.”(11)
Reflective level is where consciousness and the highest levels of feeling, emotions and cognition dwell. It is where one’s interpretation, understanding and reasoning come from. The result of everything we do has both cognitive and an affective component – cognitive to assign meaning, affective to assign value. It is an unavoidable innate condition. Moreover, the affective state, whether positive or negative emotion, changes how we think. When we are in the state of negative affect, our neurotransmitters stops all behavioural and reflective reflex to focus on the problem and avoid any distractions. Positive emotions, in contrast, relax and broaden brain processing, triggering many advantages: they help to cope with stress, facilitate our curiosity and ability to learn. Norman prompted that joy, for instance, creates the impulse to play; interest creates the drive to explore. (5)
It is crucial for designers to considerate all three levels in their work. And that is how much you should care.
Object As Human
Many of us must have encountered frustration with today’s technology. Getting your smartphone screen hang in the middle of usage, tapping on the screen numerous times to figure out that it is not our fingers’ fault, trying our luck on the power button, pressing harder on each tries, and finally decide on force shut down to restart again. They sometimes lose files and crash, often for no apparent reason. Is it the software’s fault, or is it the programmers who neglected in fulfiling our needs? As users of technology, we don’t care. All we care about is that our lives are made more miserable by these failures. It is “their fault”, “their” being everyone and evrything involved in the smartphone’s development. Furthermore, they express no shame, they never apologise or say they are sorry. Nevertheless, we still develop a love-hate relationship with our technology. The pleasure of efficiency and convenience instill so much positive affect into us, that we get over the negative emotion quickly. That’s the reason why Apple’s iPhone sales doesn’t just maintain but increases by leaps on every new release.
I believe it is time where sincere attention required in establishing effective communication between human and technology. We certainly do not want a servant robot roaming around the house, picking up dirty dishes, washing clothes or cleaning the floor. We don’t want another automated vacuum cleaner with multiple features. If not, how will it look like? What form does it hold? Since microprocessor and computer chips are getting tinier while becoming more powerful, what if technology is embbed within normal objects? Do we want to cause any confusion that we can’t differentiate which is tech-embbed? What emotions will it need to have in order to successfully communicate with us? The answer depends on the nature of the task, the environment and its social life. Does it interact with other ‘robots’, machines, animals or people? If so, it needs to be able to express its own emotional state as well as to assess our emotions and responses it interacts with. When the expressions of the robot are displayed visually, we can understand the state of the robot, clarify instruction and offer help accordingly if necessary. We will eventually actively learn to take better advantage of the robot’s capabilities. The reason is hence strong to marry analog movements and digital reactions as a seamless transition.
If this robot object can remember data so it will repeat the similar task when appropriate, do we want it to respond to our emotions directly? We may want it to analyze our complex and ambiguous behavioural command, like “Forget the plate, get me a bowl instead.” With data collection, we need to ask ourselves if we prefer suggestions from the robot? In short term, we see it as kind, smart and understanding; in long term, it will be very annoying as if the stalking of user-targetted advertisements while you surf the net is not detrimental enough. Looking at the bright side, Issac Asimov came up with the Zeroth Law – that “a robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm” – as a safety measure. Liability laws guarantee that machines around us are outfitted with numerous safeguards to prevent their actions from harming people.(5) Common machines like elevators have sensors that stop them from closing on passengers. Vaccum cleaners have sensing mechanisms that cause them to stop of reroute whenever they bump into anything or come too close to an edge. Making robots our ‘next best friend’ is still a bright future ahead.
Object As Narrative
It is apparent that most of eletronic objects today is based virtually and is experienced as an interface – a screen. Designers are beginning to explore other potential of the physicality of the virtual, searching for the possibility of more sensual interfaces and new aesthetic qualities.
The narrative possibilities offered by the conventional semiotic-based approach depend on “recognition,” whereas the more dynamic form of narrative suggested by Beevor could open the way for the active critical receptivity of an experience that “perception” involves. In the case of electronic products, the unique attributes of the interaction is their potential as an electronic product to persuade the users as protagonists, through handling the object, to generate a narrative space where the understanding of the experience is changed or enlarged. By using the object, the protagonist enters a space between desire and determinism, a bizarre world of the “infra-ordinary,” where strange stories show that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and that our conventional experience of everyday day life through electronic products is aesthetically impoverished.(10)
Juxtaposition of physical object and technological component allows the best qualities of both to coexist, with its respective aesthetic and functional potential. Technology can be mass-produced whereas the object can be batch-produced. They can run simultaneously at different rates of obsolescene as long as the product is designed for the ease in disassembly.
(Thank you for reading if you made it up to this point. Apologies for the spacing, I don’t know why WordPress doesn’t let me do it. Anyway, I’d like to reward you with an enlightening podcast by Roman Mars from 99% Invisible, deconstructing the notion of a chair.)
1. Van hinte, E. (2004). (Eds.) Eternally Yours Time In Design. Rotterdam: OIO publishers.
2. Wagner, S. A. (1997). Understanding Green Consumer Behaviour: A Qualitative Cognitive Approach. London and New York: Routledge.
3. Dr Martinez, M.G. and Dr Poole, N. (n.d.). Ethical consumerism: development of a global trend and its impact on development. Retrieved from https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/7489/1/FP1_4__3_.pdf
4. Fukasawa, N. (2007). Naoto Fukasawa. London: Phaidon Press Limited
5. Norman, D. (2004). Emotional Design: Why we love or hate everyday things. New York: Basic Books.
6. Jordan, P. (2000). Designing Pleasurable Products: An Introduction to the New Human Factors. London: Taylor & Francis.
7. Parsons, T. (2009). Thinking: Objects – Contemporary approaches to product design. London: Thames & Hudson.
8. Design education is “tragic” says Jonathan Ive. (13 November 2014). Dezeen. Retrieved from http://www.dezeen.com/2014/11/13/design-education-tragic-says-jonathan-ive-apple/
9. Norman, D. (2002). The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.
10. Dunne, A. (1999). Hertzian tales: Electronic products, aesthetic experience and critical design. London: RCA CRD Research Publications.
11. Dieter Rams. (2010). Gestalten. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6-wA-7QIeE