First published in a slightly modified form ‘Hello Good Lookin’’ in Business Standard, 22 July, in Deep Design, a fortnightly column by Itu Chaudhuri.
In the popular mind, for longer than we can remember, the role of designers has been to make beautiful things.
Understandably so. Up until the 19th century, the word design meant a ‘pattern’, to decorate, or manufacture utilitarian objects, such as a Wedgwood china teapot or a brass surahi from a ‘manufactory’ in Moradabad. Even today, the qualifier ‘designer’, applied to, say, a water faucet, promises us a sleeker or otherwise more beautiful version of its ‘undesigned’ poor cousin.
Up until the 19th century, the word design meant a ‘pattern’, to decorate, or manufacture utilitarian objects
For much of the 20th century, too, design was tasked with the higher-order concern of influencing our visual culture with manufactured objects, communications and spaces. Of course designers always did much more crucial, often invisible, work than this. But the role given to it was not always resisted: and even if not always concerned specifically with beauty, an aesthetic frame was how design talked to the rest of us.
But towards the century’s end, certainly by the 21st, buttressed by decades of being a university-level discipline, the profession gave itself a new discourse. Now design was ‘problem-solving’ and its superior 21st century analogue, ‘design thinking’ (a tautology? An oxymoron? Depends on whether you are a sceptic or a paid-up member).
But towards the century’s end, the profession gave itself a new discourse. Now design was ‘problem-solving’ and its superior 21st century analogue, ‘design thinking’
Both these new formulations posit core design ability that has gone ‘demat’, or divorced from its manual or visual forebears. It’s seen as transferable to any domain, and to hear some tell it, capable of taking on any knotty problem from poverty to parking. Graphic designers, for example, no longer serve just the publishing or communication industries but think up ways in which ordering a taxi on a mobile phone can be intuitive and efficient. They are designers of user experience, or UX.
The subtle effect of all this is a uber-rational discourse, in which beauty (looks good!) is pitted against performance (achieves an objective), to be somehow balanced or traded off. Lost is the point that beauty and the other sorts of value are not independent variables but co-dependent ones. Don Norman is a seminal figure in the field of field of usability. The following examples and some of the discussion we owe to him.
beauty is pitted against performance, to be somehow traded off. Lost is the point that beauty and the other sorts of value are not independent variables but co-dependent ones
Research shows that beauty, and even the lack of it, can be harnessed to improve the performance of the product. It’s easy to see that attractive things are preferred, but less easy to see that they can work better. In one case, an attractively laid out bank ATM was ‘perceived to be easier to use’ than otherwise identical ATMs. Such a perception is profoundly self-fulfilling: perceived to be easier is easier.
But other profound effects may be at work. When I chop onions with a knife I really like, I experience a feeling of control. This leads me to relax; it actually causes a dilation of my pupils, a tiny decrease in my skin’s perspiration rate and my breathing (lie detectors work on this principle). I am more open to cutting onions, more open to help, more trusting and able to absorb stress. I will likely feel more skilful, which will translate into a more skilful performance. This process needs a little more unpacking.
First, we must widen our conception of beauty to include the entire experience. I loved the design of the knife when I saw it, for a number of reasons. Its weight and balance in my hand felt just right. The motion of cutting was rewarding in the way the steel went through the onion, and rested on the solid board below. The grip remained firm and comfortable and completing the task produced no fatigue. This led to feelings of control, skill, and perhaps pride. The resulting flows of dopamine, (the brain’s hormone of reward, among other things) enhanced memory formation, making sure that a repeat experience is anticipated pleasurably, reinforcing the cycle and etching the the grooves of a behaviour. Anyone familiar with the creative life understands the effect of positive mood on performance.
We must widen our conception of beauty to include the entire experience
When we say, therefore, that the performance of the knife depended to a degree on its appeal, we incorporate the human using the knife. It’s futile to measure the knife’s sharpness, because the knife isn’t designed to chop onions of its own accord.
This attraction has two parts. The first, relates to an object’s physicality, or what Deep Design has frequently discussed as physique. This form of liking (or disliking) is automatic, instantaneous and is what psychologists call an affect: a sense, before the act of labelling takes place, and before the associative processes of memory and judgement can be brought into play. The term ‘pre-personal’ is used to describe this unstructured, but potent sensation. Some theorise that ‘physiqual’ affects relate to primal sensory abilities that helped us sense safety or danger.
But physique is also being simultaneously evaluated and processed, in a continuous flux, not as boxed stages. In the knife example, ‘control’ is a feeling, or a label I give the affect (the sensations of seeing, holding and cutting). The label is a product of my learned experiences, such as culture, and associations. Pride, and the projection of it, are further maturations, and all these are born of realisation. Realisation is both cognition and emotion, both personal and social. I use the word because it connotes a process, by which emotions are formed and recognised. A coming to know, rather than a destination.
The most used model to structure, and thus to synthesise attraction is personality, or the use of the human being as both as a metaphor for organising and occasionally, expressing, elements of physique and realisation into an understandable whole. Without human beings, there are no stories; but that story must be left for another time.