machinespace = the networked information space of ever-increasing complexity that humans have to interact with.

August 16, 2004

from utility to emotion...

I wrote this a while ago, when advance notices of Don Norman's book "Emotional Design" were first published… but I hesitated to post it.

I admit it. I was afraid to say anything that would look like I was criticizing the sage of design philosophy. Now that Stephen Hawking has recanted his theories about Black Holes,* I figured that this is the year for recantations of long favored theories.

Dr. Norman finally admits that man does not live by utility alone - but does not acknowledge the legions of designers who have been saying so all these years. In the area of web design in particular, visual designers with a penchant for designing to appeal to the emotions have been made to feel that they were breaking some sacred and inviolable law that functional usability comes first, last and everything in between.

Granted, losing sight of functionality isn't going to get a product, web site or software very far… but neither is ignoring aesthetic appeal, marketability, image and branding. A bland, functional, utilitarian world does not sell.

It's not as if this is a sudden revelation - I am sure that Dr. Norman has struggled for years to reconcile the opposing aspects of design appeal - the rational with the emotional aspects. He speaks of visceral needs … his endorsement isn't needed for the acceptability of something graphic artists, industrial designers and marketers have known since the dawn of advertising.

The "gut" sensation we all feel when we see a certain product or service which gives us the "gotta have it" feeling has been around since Thag the caveman first walked into a dealership buy a plain old knobby club and the salesman talked him into taking a few swings with the all new multi-function lightweight small-form factor club/attitude adjustment/disemboweller with a non-slip "softgrip" handle. sexy design sells - it's cool, works well and you want to be seen with it.

Lets face it... We are very much driven by our senses…. Our rational side tells us that one car is the same as another in terms of its basic functionality, but why does a BMW sports model leave us panting?. Oh. Cost does matter. We do not throw all good sense and caution to the wind in making our choices, but we are willing to stretch ourselves financially in order to possess a cool gadget or car or whatever.

I would not go so far as to call Dr. Norman's current position as a "turnaround" as the Guardian newspaper called in their article about him back in March 2004 here's the link, hope it still works….,3605,1166467,00.html.
Don't get me wrong… the man who wrote the "Design of Everyday Things" and is a legend in our field was never that far off from where he is now - but his efforts in favor of functionality gave designers who focused on emotional aspects a bad rap.

We swung too far to one side.. now, with his influence, we can swing back to where we should be - the middle, and aim for that elusive balance that is good design - functionality balanced with form… form and function are the Yin and Yang of design, neither one leading or following.
*oh, he did admit he was mistaken, but then called the residual radiation which disproves his theory 'Hawking Radiation'. Which proves one thing - you CAN have it both ways.

Check out the articles about his recantation. Made a huge stir in the scientific world…

and by the way...

utilitarianism = doctrine that the useful is the good; especially as elaborated by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill; the aim was said to be the greatest happiness for the greatest number

as for Thag, he's an old friend - remember Gary Larson's cartoon The Far Side? I often use him as a point of reference... as in, what would Thag the caveman say to this?


copyright 2004 ajoy muralidhar. all names or brands referenced are the copyright of their respective owners.


Post a Comment

<< Home