Designing design: The medium is the message

The Lockheed Lounge

The Lockheed Lounge

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive … they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.

– Marshall McLuhan,  Understanding Media

In the world of design, the Lockheed Lounge is a great example of the meaning of: the medium is the message. According to its designer, Marc Newson, the Lockheed Lounge is utterly unusable. It is made from aviation materials and sold, at auction, last year for over £2 million. So, it is not something you would necessarily use to sit on whilst watching the telly.

Design journal Disegno cleverly asks:

Is it a design object or an objet d’art?

The fields of design art and conceptual design pose this question too as they focus on ideas and stories rather than processes and function. The result is that they produce artefacts which are remarkable = worthy of remarking upon, but not necessarily life enhancing artefacts, rather like Seth Godin’s ubiquitous Purple Cow.

English professor, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase the medium is the message to describe how television and the telephone alter society. During a TV discussion in 1977, McLuhan was very clear on making a distinction between the medium and its content, saying that content was, to a certain extent, irrelevant. Using the example of TV advertising, McLuhan said that advertisers don’t care what content they are sharing; they are only interested in the effect it is having on the people watching. Are these people buying what they are selling? If not, why not? Let’s change that content.

Social media is the message

Social media marketing works in the same way, it doesn’t matter what content you are serving up. It is how that content converts to more followers, more website traffic, and more sales, and it’s miles easier and cheaper to get started online in comparison to getting going in TV advertising.

From a consumers’ point of view, it is scary, that social media marketers can collect a lot of information about our likes/dislikes, spending habits, behaviour, movements, and personal information, from all over the Internet, in order to further serve up the content which appeals directly to us, to get us to inevitably close that sale. In this plugged in era of big data, we really don’t stand a chance.

How long will it be before we are persuaded into buying uncomfortable loungers we can’t afford and never sit on? The only way to not get that message, would be to do the unthinkable, and unplug from that medium.

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Designing design: No function in structure

astrolabe pic

Previously we saw that the design principle: Form follows function, can be fabulous but sometimes limiting, and in nature it does not necessarily apply, sometimes function follows form. However, if you take the form (or structure) outside of its natural context or situation, so that there are few clues as to what an artefact was designed for, users may find completely new functions for it. This is known as the no function in structure principle.

The post-it note originated because one 3M employee thought that the small pieces of paper for testing glue were actually a new type of bookmark. Thankfully, no one was around to explain that everyone else was focusing on the glue to keep this person from serendipitously finding a new tool.

On the World Wide Web, Pinterest is a great example of no function in structure. The user collects pictures, or looks at other peoples’ collections of pictures from across the WWW, and they just browse and click, and browse and click (actually, designer Jeffrey Zeldman had a different way, until Pinterest disabled the feature which stopped him from enjoying the app – which is a different approach altogether to not listening to the user). Either way, looking at, and saving pins is an alternative method to the standard way of navigating around a website and asking Steve Krug’s three questions: Where am I? Where have been? Where am I going?  The users on Pinterest don’t necessarily care. They are there to experience the site by looking at all the lovely pins without any exact expectation of what order things need to happen in.

Treading the paths of desire

Instead of prescribing how someone should exactly use your website or artefact, sometimes it can be insightful to watch what a user does when presented with an artefact without clear instructions. During his TED talk, designer Tom Hume, showed an aerial shot of the centre of Brasilia which was designed for cars only. There are paths of desire trodden in by pedestrians across 15 lanes of motorways and roads, so that pedestrians can get to where they need to go in a city only designed for cars. Consequently, pedestrian road accidents are higher in Brasilia than anywhere else in the world. In contrast, a good use of the paths of desire is of the ones that are allowed to appear in newly built University Quads which are left without paths until people have trodden them in, then the designers come back and concrete them over.

Serendipity and discoverability

The world is constantly changing, especially in this our digital era, and it is necessary for the designer to have empathy for the users. Adopting a no function in structure approach and watching users discover new experiences and ways of using artefacts (or the infrastructure) is a truly empathetic way of providing the design solutions that people really want.

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Designing design: Form follows function

Starck's squeezer demonstrating that form does not follow function

Starck’s squeezer

A theory, which has been heavily debated in modern architecture and industrial design, is that form follows function, a concept attributed to an 18th century monk Carlo Lodoli, whose theories on architecture have influenced many designers.

Form follows function states that the purer the functionality of an artefact, the more beautiful it is. Or simply put: less is more.

I have written before how my coffee machine, the La Pavoni Professional is a good example of this. There is no confusing clutter, you simply put the coffee in the grupa and then pull the handle down to push the water through.

Apparently Lodoli was inspired by nature, and the beauty that inspires purity of function: When you look at something, you can say straight away what it does. But, in nature things are not created with an intention. If anything, function follows form, and when we adapt this opposite approach, accidently or otherwise, we often use the word organic to describe how something has unfolded and works well without our interference.

When life gives you lemons

If we look at Phillips Starck’s lemon squeezer, it is absolutely fabulous, and I thoroughly enjoyed having it in my kitchen. However, when I used it I needed to put a big cup underneath it as the juice dribbled everywhere, and a tea strainer on top of the cup, to catch the pulp and the pips, otherwise I got all that too. Ultimately, I needed more than one tool to do the job – Starck’s squeezer, a tea strainer – and since neither tool the squeezer or the tea strainer was fit for purpose (it took ages to get the pulp back out of the tea strainer and off Starck’s squeezer), it was super irritating to squeeze lemons. Finally, I recycled Starck’s squeezer.

It is a wonderful looking artefact, even today when I look at the picture above, I am as thrilled by its form, as the very first day I had one in my kitchen – it is truly a thing of beauty – but then I remember again how I frustrated I felt by its limited functionality, and know for sure that the design principle form follows function is limited too.

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Designing design: Function, behaviour, structure

astrolabe pic

The design process exists because the world does not always accommodate us humans, so we employ designers to create things or artefacts, to get the world to adapt to us. In this way, we can see that design is the science of the artificial.

One way of thinking about design is to categorise information into three groups: function-structure-behaviour, as follows:

The first step is for designers decide on the sorts of functions they want the new artefacts to be able to do and then they write descriptions that could potentially do that.  However, until the artefact exists in its physical form, i.e., it has a structure, it is impossible to predict if the artefact will function in the way the designer anticipates, especially when choosing materials – plastic behaves very differently to wood and so on.  Or, in the case of designing a website, a blog behaves very differently to an online store.

So, instead of going straight to the second step of trying to describe the structure of an artefact directly from a set of required functions, the designer will first try to describe the expected behaviour of an artefact, and probably do some sort of simulation (by building a prototype, or performing computational analysis) in order to see how the thing behaves and if it is different to the expected behaviour, and this even works with software.

So, I am currently redesigning my website as it’s looking a bit old, so if I think of it in terms of function, behaviour, and structure, what might happen?

  1. Function: What is the purpose of your website? (Currently, it is just my blog, but I would like it to showcase what I do.)
  2. Behaviour: What will your website do? (Describe what I do, potentially offer what I do?)
  3. Structure: What structure will your website take? (I should have an about-me page, a courses page, a books page,  links to what I do, or a membership area so people can access what I do directly.)

In this way we can see that once I divide how I want my site to behave and how I want it to be structured, it becomes easier to open up to new ideas. Had I just thought that I have a blog, which looks like a blog, it would have been harder to arrive at the idea of creating a membership area. I might never have even thought about it.

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Designing design: The science of the artificial

astrolabe pic

Design is the science of the artificial – Herb Simon

Design is the process of making ideas tangible, in order to improve anything from the task at hand, to changing how a whole government functions. And, because of the impact that design can have on society – just think about how Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web has completely changed our working lives – the design process has been studied for centuries. In Roman times, architect Vitruvius wrote in his De architectura that the human figure is a great example of proportion which in turn inspired Leonardo da Vinci to draw his Vitruvian Man. Design sometimes imitates nature whilst performing the science of the artificial.

Different ways of designing Design

There are several schools of thought when studying design, and sometimes these terms are used interchangeably.

  • Design theory draws on Architectural and Art theory such as the work of Vitruvius and the philosophically-based Aesthetics. Much research is done using mathematics, which is logical given that there many satisfying mathematical designs in nature: The golden ratio, fractals, rule of thirds, and Fibonnaci’s sequence, to name but a few. Sometimes design theory is viewed as the superset of design science and design thinking.
  • Design Science (or design research) studies the best way to understand, teach and perform design, whilst developing tools to support or automate design tasks.
  • Design thinking often focuses on ambiguous problems where success has no defined outcome. This approach is bigger than the design needed to create a deliverable which can be judged as satisfactory, by the client or customer.
  • Design Aesthetics is sometimes used interchangeably with commercial design as a way to produce aesthetically pleasing products in order to have a competitive advantage. Here we see how and why marketing has become inextricably linked to design – just think Apple.

Redesigning design

Designer Don Norman has said that we are all designers, which is partially true, as everywhere we go, we design our spaces in our houses and at our desks. It’s one thing to reorganise your bedroom but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we could all design a complex socio-techical system like the ones, for example, which exist in hospitals where patients, multidisciplinary teams of surgeons, consultants, nurses, and computer systems must all interact, schedule, and record everything from consultations, booking surgery slots, courses of treatment, and follow-up appointments that make up a whole journey which might occur over many years.

It does, however, mean as Architect Paul Grillo says, in Form Function and Design that:

Design is everybody’s business: we live in it, we eat in it, we pray and play in it.

For technology is constantly changing, and so is our society – just think of the need for Simplexity and the Internet of Things in our new Digital Culture, – and so is design, as it expands to support humans in their creativity and communication in an ever more complex world.

And, so I am starting a new blog series where I will look at individual design principles or theories which try to support humans as they create and communicate.

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