BAPD12: Context and Rational Paper Josiah Emsley Wednesday, January 13th 2010
On/Off, adjustable controls of everyday products do not communicate their function as poetically as they could.
How can design be used to create a narrative, without resorting to new technologies?
The statement above refers to a number of products that when turned on, do very different things, however, the means to turn all of these different products on are very similar, most often a switch or button. There is an opportunity to add richness to a product, by arousing the mind of the user. This first section sets out to recognise the different ways in which narrative can become inherent to an object, and the type of narratives constructed.
Figure 1 below shows a great example of a product that uses interaction to create a narrative. The Cuboluce is a light, in the shape of a cube, designed in 1972 by Franco Bettonica and Mario Melocchi. To turn the light on, the user must open the lid of the box. The image of a black box conjures a sense of mystery, provoking anyone to wonder, what is being kept inside? To see a mysterious box, one would probably assume that on opening the box, they would gain some reward, they found the box, and they deserve the treasure. Then the act of lifting the lid of a box is even richer in experience. It triggers thoughts of Pandora’s box, letting something out, something that will fill the air; or perhaps opening a treasure chest, to reveal the treasures you have found.
Fig 1 – The Cuboluce (1972)
The user is storing light in a box, if they would like some light, to read their book perhaps, then they simply open the lid and let some light out, if they would only like a small amount of light, then they only slightly open the lid, for more light, they lift the lid wide open. Through this process, the user relates to light in a new way, they may see it more as a commodity, they may see it as something they use, rather than something neglected. The visual language of the open lid suggests that the light is flooding out of the box, encouraging the user to greater realise wasted energy. The narrative that is conjured here is of fantasy; another product that conjures a magical narrative is the Airswitch 1 by Mathmos (Fig 2). To turn the light on, one waves their hand over the top, then to dim the light, simply raise and lower your hand above it. The shape compliments this feature, borrowing the visual language of a beaker used for chemistry, or better still, to concoct magical potions. “The feeling is not that you’re in your living room putting on a light, but that you’re at Hogwarts and have double Potions.” (‘Mathmos Airswitch 1 light: Mathmos website). Although the design of this product does emit a strong story, the use of a new technology could be contributing to the wonder that it creates. This will be discussed in the next section.
Fig 2 – Mathmos Airswitch 1
Fig 3 – Record player
Record players and turntables voice a great story of rituals and history, as well as function. Looking at the top view of a modern record player (shown in Fig 3), immediately one is struck with the simple structure of shapes. The base square, where the motor and other electronics exist, the large circle, holding the code of information in a physical form, and the lingering arm, reaching from square to circle, that acts as translator. The relationship between the arm and record is clear, and the user understands that for sound to be played, the arm must be positioned over the record. A sense of ritual can be felt when watching someone go through the process of loading and playing a vinyl record. First, carefully placing the record over the centre pin, onto the bed of the turntable, then with one finger, lightly lifting the arm and using precision to position the needle above the first groove of the vinyl, indicating the start of the track; then finally, lowering the needle to hear a satisfying crackle of the speakers, positive feedback to assure the connection has been made correctly.
Fig 4 – Record player with lid
Fig 4 shows an example of a vintage record player with a lid. When the lid is unopened, the object has the language of a piece of furniture, resembling a case to hold exotic cigars or other valued possessions, perhaps placed at the end of a heavy desk. When the lid is left open, the object instantly reveals its function, displaying the familiar shapes (circle and arm) that are visually associated with the playing of sound. The opening of the lid and revealing of these shapes adds to the experience of the ritualistic routine that takes place when loading and playing a record. All of these experience rich actions and shapes have been lost since the arrival and success of the Compact Disk (CD) and with that, the rash of buttons that pepper the exterior of the CD players, illustrated in figure 5 with the world’s first CD player by Sony.
Fig 5 – Sony CDP-101 (1982)
Another household product where movement of components is intrinsic to the design and function is a Cafetiere, also known as a French Press (Fig 6). When being used, this object stands on the breakfast table, with its plunger patiently stood high.
Fig 6 – Cafetiere
Its shape resembles a laboratory apparatus, to be used in an experiment; this tempts any child to wonder the result of the plunger being plunged, soon grows an overwhelming desire to be the one who plunges the coffee, whether they like coffee or not; the reward is not the coffee at this stage, but simply the pleasure of satisfying the urge that grew only from the visual mystique that surrounded the object. The journey of a user that has used a cafetiere before is slightly different. It is less of a mystique before hand, but when it comes to plunging the coffee, it becomes an art, something to perfect, and something where patience and concentration is needed. The task could be done just as efficiently without looking, however, it becomes fulfilling to watch the process occur, relating your physical effort to the transformation that is taking place.
Fig 7 – Pull String Alarm Clock (2006)
The alarm clock in Fig 7, by Duck Young Kong, is set by pulling a string; the length of the string represents the remaining time until the alarm will go off. The slow progress the body makes of drawing in the length of string creates a building tension, like the burning fuse of a bomb, and with countless movies and cartoons that feature a burning fuse, we are programmed to associate the imagery with a dawning end and fill with panic. Comparing this imagery with that of an analogue clock (Fig 8), the sense of tension is not created at all. If the red hand represents the time the alarm has been set, and the alarm is to go off when the hour hand reaches the red hand, because of the nature of a circle, an end cannot be represented visually as the hour hand can freely continue past the red hand. Looking at the face of the clock, the red hand does not mark an end, but simply a point in time that will occur, then be passed, and time after that is guaranteed, unlike the Pull String Alarm Clock, where time passing is represented through the shortening of the string, perhaps suggesting that time may end when the string runs out.
Fig 8 Analogue Clock
Fig 9 – Universal Connections by Dialog05 (2006)
Löscheimer (delete bucket) is one of a collection of 18 everyday objects (Fig 9) that have been metaphorically alienated by the USB. The act of pressing the ‘delete’ pedal is easily associated with that of a flip top garbage bin. This design language has come full circle, starting with a physical bin, then with the icon of a bin on Apple Mac computer desktops to represent deleting an intangible file, and now that intangible icon has materialised. To add to the highly functional design language of the Delete Bucket, Plusminus Design has created an inflatable USB stick (Fig 10), using a micro pump to visually indicate the size of its contents. One is encouraged to believe that the data held is tangible and holds mass, moving from the Flashbag, to the Delete Bucket.
Fig 10 – Flashbag Inflatable USB
The narrative of both of these products clearly relate to their function. Through the visual analysis of the 10 product examples chosen, three narrative types can be recognised: Function, Fantasy and Nostalgia. The examples in figures 1 and 2 demonstrate a narrative of Fantasy, a story that is conjured and unrealistic. Figures 3, 4 and 6 display a visual language that creates a narrative of nostalgia; if shapes and features of these products were borrowed and included in the design of a contemporary product, then the user would be reminded of these classic, timeless objects. Lastly, figures 7 – 10 include objects that use the design of the controls and shapes to communicate the function clearly to the user. Understanding these 3 narrative types will help me to effectively review and analyse the arguments and discourses of relevant texts.
From the hypothesis, three key areas that should be explored can be identified: technology in products, communicating function to a user, and the use of narrative and poetry within design. This review will identify and analyse the key theories put forward, and lead on to critique the principles of how to create a narrative within a product, and how one may poetically communicate a function to a user.
Technology In Products
With the fast advances in technology, humans are able to do more, with decreased effort. The range of activities made possible through one click of a button is ever growing. “Technology offers the potential to make life easier and more enjoyable; each new technology provides increased benefits. At the same time, added complexities arise to increase our difficulty and frustration.” (Norman 2002:29). Technology may enable us to complete tasks faster and more effectively, and with new interfaces, there may be a lag time where learning new forms of operation cause frustration. But this frustration is not the primary concern. New technologies threaten to eliminate “tangibility”; the weight, texture and surface feel of physical objects. In Donald A. Normans book, Emotional Design he states:
“Far too many high-technology creations have moved from real physical controls and products to ones that reside on computer screens, to be operated by touching the screen or manipulating a mouse. All the pleasure of manipulating a physical object is gone and, with it, a sense of control. Physical feel matters. We are, after all, biological creatures, with physical bodies, arms, and legs.” (Norman 2004:79)
As an increasing amount of our physical world becomes digitalized, and we lose real ‘control’, we must recognise and remain mindful of what we are losing in the process (Dawes 2007). “We need to be surrounded by the things that define us, which in turn trigger social interactions. Combine the empowerment of digital technology with our experiences, wants, and needs in the analog world” (Dawes 2007:239)[SIK].
The elements of physical objects help to build user experience. This is about how a product works on the outside, rather than the technology on the inside. It is the point at which the user comes into contact, to use the object. This interaction often involves pushing a lot of buttons, especially in the case of technology products. (Garrett 2002:10). Bill Moggridge describes this relationship between technology and physical feel in his book, Designing Interactions. He explains that, an electromechanical object such as a radio, links its physical mechanical components to its electronic elements in a direct manner. “When we turn the dial, our fingertips and muscles can almost “feel” the stations being scanned. With computers, however, the distance between, on one hand, keystrokes and screen image, and on the other, what’s happening inside the computer is usually much less direct.” (Moggridge 2007: xv). Moggridge goes on to explain that a “well designed system has reassuring feedback”, referring to feeling the ‘travel of the key’ on a keyboard and the ‘little click it makes’, letting us know what we’ve done when we’ve done it. (Moggridge 2007: xv). He uses an example of using an early word processor, explaining that a sequence of keystrokes creates a pattern in sounds, and if the pattern were broken, he would know that he had made a mistake. “The aural feedback let me go faster than if I’d relied just on my eyes.” (Moggridge 2007: xv)
The use of sound links to the next key area to be explored: communicating function and state of an object to the user.
To communicate, an object must stimulate the senses of the user. One of the primary senses to be stimulated is that of hearing; the element of sound. Everyday products are loaded with sounds, to signal completion of tasks or to act as signs of function, to reassure, or warn. However, the majority of these sounds are electronic and synthesized, and become similar and confusing within one space. In The Design of Future Things, Norman suggests “we manage well in the natural world, interpreting the signs and signals of the environment and its inhabitants. Our perceptual system conveys a rich sense of space, created from the seamless combination of sights and sounds, smells and feelings that surround us.” (Norman 2007:58). He goes on to consider natural environmental sounds, “sounds convey a rich picture of the happenings around us because sounds are an automatic result whenever objects move, whenever they meet one another, scraping, colliding, pushing, or resisting.” (Norman 2007:59). He suggests that ‘natural signals’ should be used, as they are richer, more informative and less intrusive.
However, a user subconsciously analyses the information received by all of their senses, and forms a mental model of a device by interpreting its perceived actions and its visible structure (Norman 2002:17). In an earlier book, Norman describes the three different mental images of an object:
First is the image in the head of the designer – call that the “designer’s model.” Then the image that the person using the device has of it and the way it works: call this the “user’s model.” In an ideal world, the designer’s model and the user’s model should be identical and, as a result, the user understands and uses the item properly. Alas, designers don’t talk to the final users; they only specify the product. People form their models entirely from their observations of the product – from its appearance, how it operates, what feedback it provides, and perhaps, any accompanying written material, such as the advertising and manuals. (Norman 2004:75)
He concludes that for something to have a good system image, a design must simply make apparent its operation (Norman 2004:76).
However, this is not the same as ‘perceived affordance’. This can be explained by considering “when you first see something you have never seen before, how do you know what to do? The required information is in the world: the appearance of the device could provide the critical clues required for its proper operation.” (Norman 1999:38). The similarities and differences to perceived affordance will be looked at in more detail in the Critique section.
Narrative & Poetry
Exploring narrative in design, products of ‘design art’ can be used as a strong example of how objects can have a story installed into their design. Gareth Williams (Senior Tutor of Design Products at the Royal College of Art) has written a book titled, Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design, which considers work by designers such as Jurgen Bey, Dunne and Raby and Tord Boontje. He states “these designers use objects to explore the meaning of past events and our relationship with them by questioning or subverting traditional forms, materials, expectations and historic values.” (Williams 2009:9).
Although the majority of objects from such designers are produced in-house, at a low volume, and are traded as artwork, rather than mass-produced products, they still maintain a connection to function and functionality, and “in their materials, technique and style, they remain designed objects. Together they make us think of something beyond the objects themselves: their narrative character bears associated meanings. Individually and collectively they can tell tales.” (Williams 2009:9). The tales the objects tell often voice universal stories and references to the past.
Referring to work from 2005, Wieki Somers explains, “Bathboat shows how I capture a personal memory in an everyday object” (Williams 2009:57). Bathboat is a bath in the shape of a small rowing boat, with timber slats, mounted on a frame similar to the blocks used to support boats in dry docks. This use of familiar forms can also be seen in the work of Jurgen Bey, giving the viewer the opportunity to let their “imaginations run riot” (Williams 2009:57). These familiar forms act as cues, to provoke the user to build connections to their own memories and experiences, enabling the user to establish and appreciate their own personal narrative.
Stories invest objects with meaning, giving them voices, histories and personalities. Moreover, if we choose to tell our personal stories through objects, they gain our own meanings alongside those of the designer. Many of the objects shown here refer to the great universal narratives of life, death and renewal that are woven into our cultural memory, familiar from myth and fairy tale, religion, and even our own hidden desires. (Williams 2009:118)
However, an object does not need to aim to communicate the ‘great universal narratives’ to validate the purpose of its design. “Artists and designers are trained to use the language of implicit meanings to add a rich communicative element over and above direct functional communication. If we only design the function of something, not what it also communicates, we risk our design being misinterpreted. Worse, we waste an opportunity to enhance everyday life.“ (Moggridge 2007: xv)
Nevertheless, detail must be taken into great consideration, and the designer should make every attempt to understand the narrative communicated by an object. Installing the narrative is one step, but the designer must remain sensitive to the narratives context and how it is to be communicated.
Such literal use of analogy results in metaphors with a single meaning. Products depict what they do, limiting the viewer’s interpretation of the electronic object to the designer’s, and, although sometimes the link made between groups of objects is ingenious, the power of these borrowed images to sustain interest is weak – they are the material equivalent of one-liners. Once the viewer grasps the connection, there is little else to engage with. (Dunne 2005:29)
The physical details that contribute to creating a narrative for an object should not simply act as cues for interpretation, but continue to promote physical interaction, so that the pleasure gained is not solely provided by comprehension of the narrative, but is also received from subsequent use of the object.
In my hypothesis, I ask the question, how can design be used to create a narrative, without resorting to new technologies? The use of the word ‘resort’ assumes that everyday products are over using new technologies. In my first section, Technology In Products, I back up this statement by quoting Norman, and develop the argument using Dawes suggestion that through this process, we are losing something real; losing touch with the physical object. New technologies speed up the functions within products, completing a task takes less effort and time. However, there is no interaction, the user may as well not have any senses, as their senses only receive faint stimulation, if any at all; to control something with the mind alone (which appears is becoming possible) would render our human senses vacant, and in turn, with lack of all interaction, a vacant mind.
“It’s the experience of an object, the little special details, which make us want to interact with it in some way, physically or emotionally. This is particularly evident when making purchasing decisions, something that logic would suggest should always be guided by price.” (Dawes 2007:40). The actual process of using a product, the journey the user goes through before achieving their goal, is what makes achieving that goal more of a special experience. (Dawes 2007:44).
This theory of ‘journey to the goal’ can be exemplified with the Pull String Alarm Clock (see Fig. 7) shown in my Visual Language Analysis. Setting an alarm can be a simple process, within a few clicks of a button the goal can be achieved. However, through setting the alarm on the Pull String Clock, senses are stimulated and pleasure is gained through the movement of the string and the visual relation to the digital numbers counting up on the display. It provides a visual aid for the user to link their physical actions to an electronic mechanism.
My next section explores ‘communicating function’, where I start by looking at the use of sound in objects. Although sound can communicate with a user very efficiently, the communication is of a very functional purpose, often alerts and signals reporting current state. This extremely functional purpose can be compared to the use of ‘perceived affordance’ (mentioned at the end of the section); this is the quality of an object that suggests its function, and how it should be used. Purely using the visual language of an object to communicate its operation only. This however, is completely utilitarian, and the degree of narrative often communicated is poor.
In describing the three mental images of an object, Norman considers the use of a product, taking into account interaction, including how it operates and the feedback that it provides. “With a good understanding, once an operation is explained, you are apt to say, “Oh, yes, I see,” and from then on require no further explanation or reminding. “Learn once, remember forever,” ought to be the design mantra.” (Norman 2004:75). This suggests that the use of an object can communicate to the user, as well as the visual appearance.
Looking back at the Pull String Alarm Clock, visually, it does not communicate its function so clearly. It has a perceived affordance with the handle, but the user cannot predict the outcome of the action. However, as soon as the user interacts with the object by, pulling the cord, the user is able to interpret the relationship, thus revealing its function.
My final section considers ‘narrative and poetry’ in design. To explore this area, I looked at Gareth Williams review on ‘design art’, in his book, Telling Tales. The work of the contemporary designers mentioned, integrate narratives that voice universal stories, references to the past and memories. The purpose of the narratives installed within such objects was never to communicate their function, or possible use. The narratives are more similar to those found in works of art, although, the process of decisions made towards the materials, technique and style justify their description as ‘designed objects’. This ‘design art’ is only a certain manner of designing-with-narrative, which takes the point Moggridge makes, of not just considering the direct functional communication, but taking the opportunity to enhance everyday life (Moggridge 2007: xv), to an extreme.
Having explored these three areas, I have identified a design opportunity. The methods used to communicate function are plain and utilitarian. The ‘narrative’ is not so much a story, but a visual guide to achieve a goal. Looking slightly deeper, ‘system image’ considers interaction and use, but is still only concerned with a users understanding of an object. On the other hand, whilst objects of ‘design art’ make the communication of a rich story, or tale, an integral part of their objects, referring to universal stories and history, they rarely attempt to relate a rich narrative that helps to describe the nature of the function an object provides. I aim to design an object that does this; it may not communicate a clear function visually, but as the user interacts with the object physically, receiving stimulation to the senses, recognising familiar feelings, the narrative will develop in the users mind. This could be described as an amalgamation of Norman’s theory of ‘perceived affordance’, and Dawes’ suggestion that the experience of an object, the physical details, are what make us want to interact with objects (Dawes 2007:40). Resulting in a design process that relies on the recognition and interpretation of familiar physical stimulus.
At the beginning of this paper, the issue is pointed out that, while there are hundreds and thousands of different products, together covering a wide array of different services, most electronic items share the same methods of control; on and off, with the touch of a button. There was clearly a design opportunity lurking here.
The first section analyses the visual language of existing household objects that demonstrate a considered approach to the design of the adjustable controls, and others that did not. It was found that some objects have elements integral to the design that gave the object a unique method of operation.
After analysing ten product examples, it could be seen that there were three definite consistent narrative types throughout, they were: Fantasy, Function, and Nostalgia.
To structure the review of relevant literature, it was sectioned into three core categories that were recognised from within the hypothesis: Technology in Products, Communicating Function to a user, and Narrative and Poetry in design.
Looking at the rise of technology used in design, it is agreed that one is able to do more with less effort. This seems like a good thing, however there are concerns. The primary concern is not the lag time of frustration, whilst users learn to use such new technologies, but is the subsequent elimination of all tangibility. With this technology comes a wall of screens to replace every control panel, and where a touch screen is not suitable, a mouse will do. The link between action and effect, whether that effect is making a coffee, buying a car or tuning a radio, has become much less direct. It is explained that within technology, a well-designed system must offer reassuring feedback; this is when sound can be used effectively.
The use of sound was further discussed in the next section, Communicating Function. Sound is often used to signal and warn a user of an objects current state. The modern household now wails with the sound of white goods beeping and whining, telling us another task is complete, but the user can become confused, the sounds are all electronic and sound alike. It is suggested that natural environmental sounds should be used instead, as they are more informative and less intrusive.
Another way to communicate an objects function is visually, as Norman explains the three mental images of an object. This image system may sound similar to the theory of perceived affordance, but it is more similar to the utilitarian use of sound. The mental image system is different as it considers use, not just the visual stimulus.
The last section was Narrative and Poetry in design, where the example of ‘Design Art’ is used to demonstrate how objects can be used to explore the meaning of past events, through installing a story into the design. The use of familiar forms act as cues, provoking the user to build connections to their own memories and experiences, creating a slightly personal narrative for each individual user. We learn that if we only concentrate on designing the function of something, then we risk the design being misinterpreted, and waste an opportunity to add richness to the object, enhancing everyday life. Although the use of an analogy can add a great depth to an object, the designer must be cautious not to create a link too literal, resulting in the user only being able to make the same interpretation as the designer. Once the connection is made, then there is little else to interact with. The physical details of the design should promote continued interaction, offering pleasure to still be gained from use.
At the end of this paper, the conclusion can be made that; the average use of narrative within objects today only acts as a visual guide on how to understand and correctly use a product, the installation of narrative is rarely used to add a playful side to the interaction between user and object.
However, the extreme opposite is found when considering objects that lie in the field of ‘design art’. A heavy use of analogies and metaphors were found, creating vibrant stories to captivate every user. Narratives installed were playful, reminiscent and poignant, and wasted no opportunity to stimulate and nourish the mind of the user. Still though, these objects of rich narrative seldom consider communicating the stories of function, that most objects have the potential to tell just as poetically.
Fig 11 – Concept ‘am/pm’
In response to this paper, I have developed a design concept (Fig 11) that is a synthesis of these two processes. The concept is a light, featuring adjustable controls inspired by the pull and lock string method to open and close window blinds. When the light is raised, the light turns on and gets brighter the higher it is raised, just as light would enter the room when a blind is raised. When lowered, the light dims until it turns off.
Successful communication of the installed narrative relies on the recognition and interpretation of familiar physical stimulus. It considers the factors needed for a successful system image, resulting in a ‘learn once, remember forever’ system for control. This comments on the fact that visually, the user cannot predict the relationship of the pull-string to the light, but as soon as the action and feedback takes place, the connection is made, and the narrative communicated.
Remaining wary of the design becoming a physical ‘one liner’ helped with the development to provide physical details that enable the object to continue to be appreciated as a well designed product, that the user interacts with on a daily basis.
This concept is a successful example of how design can be used to create a narrative, without resorting to the use of new technologies to create interaction to wow the user. Although technology is used to dim the light with adjustment to height, the interaction between the physical details and the user is humble and provides familiar, wholesome emotions, coming together to play with the story of light in a home.
 “Almost all modern devices come with an assortment of lights and beeping signals that alert us to some approaching event or act as alarms, calling our attention to critical events. In isolation, each is useful and helpful. But most of us have multiple devices, each with multiple signalling systems. The modern home and automobile can easily have dozens or even hundreds of potential signals” . . .
“If the trend continues, the home of the future will be one continual wail of alerts and alarms.” (Norman 2007:57)
Barthes, R. 2000. Mythologies. London: Vintage.
Berger, J. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books
Cameron, A. 2004. Art of Experimental Interaction Design. Hong Kong: Systems Design Limited
Dawes, B. 2007. Analog In, Digital Out: Brendan Dawes on Interaction Design. Berkeley, Calif. : New Riders
Dreyfuss, H. 2004. Designing for People. New York: Allworth Press
Dunne, A. 2005. Hertzian Tales: electronic products, aesthetic experience, and critical design. London: MIT Press
Freud, S. 2003. The Uncanny. London: Penguin Classics
Fukasawa, N. 2007. Naoto Fukasawa. London: Phaidon
Garrett, J. 2002. The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web. Berkeley, Calif. : New Riders
Ichiki, H. 2005. Extra-ordinary: an amusing guide for unleashing your creativity. Gloucester: Rockport
Johnson, S. 1997. Interface Culture: how new technology transforms the way we create and communicate. San Francisco: Basic Books
Leung, L. 2008. Digital Experience Design: ideas, industries, interaction. Bristol: Intellect
Loan, O. 2002. The Elements of Design: Rediscovering Colors, Textures, Forms, and Shapes. London: Thames & Hudson
Moggridge, B. 2007. Designing Interactions. London: MIT Press
Norman, D. 1999. Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books
Norman, D. 2002. Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books
Norman, D. 2007. Design of Future Things. New York: Basic Books
Norman, D. 2005. Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York: Basic Books
Pine, J. 1999. The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage. Boston, Mass. :Harvard Business School Press