In last week’s lecture I talked about how designers often use terminology to convey a sense of expertise that creates a distance from the client, or user, or viewer. All professions do it – plumbers, mechanics, academics, doctors. In many cases it’s not intentional: the only way to describe a complex process might be to use a simple term. Those in the know will understand it. But those who aren’t, won’t.
It’s actually very difficult, once you’ve become an expert, to teach it to people from the beginning. I noticed this on Friday when I was struggling to explain Kant’s concept of beauty – I had actually taken all that out the day before but, forced to use the old presentation file there he was again and I had to choose either to go into detail, attempt to summarise but lose the detail, or just skip over it. When someone uses the words “Kant” and “beautiful” in the same sentence I know what they’re talking about but it would take a whole book or course to explain it to someone else. As it was, the only reason I wanted to mention Kant’s idea of beauty was so I could say it’s all a bit rubbish and we’ve moved on now. Still interesting, though.
As if by magic, but actually by coincidence (which happens a lot in this business) there’s an article in today’s Observer about the use of language and why it might be why the arts and humanities are being targeted for cuts in the UK at the moment. Put very simply, the argument is that everyone knows about this stuff (poems, paintings, Pride and Prejudice and all that), and people who try to dress it up in complex language are wasting everyone’s time (read the article and you’ll see there’s some truth to that). Hence, why pay them to teach that rubbish to people at taxpayer’s expense? Let’s get rid of them all and focus on proper things like curing cancer.
Which is a silly argument because it ignores the fact that “the obvious” is not always obvious, and we are where we are today because someone somewhere was able to explain why stuff we take for granted shouldn’t be taken for granted. (It also ignores the fact that without the stuff that makes life worth living (you know, poems, paintings, Pride and Prejudice and all that) there’s not a lot of point in knowing how to make what would inevitably be a miserable existence even longer, but that’s just my opinion).
To give an example of why “the obvious” is worth studying: I set the book Snoop for this semester. It’s a book about how people’s possessions and personal space can tell you an awful lot about them. Reading some students’ blogs I’ve noticed a range of responses, most of which have included some form of the phrase “this is pretty obvious”. As is breathing, of course, but if we didn’t know why it was needed, or why some people couldn’t do it, or what we should do if someone stopped, there’d be an awful lot fewer people around than there are now, and we’d still be seeing killer smogs like the one that killed over 4,000 Londoners on 5 December 1952.
Design is driven by human behaviour (it also drives it, depending on which side of the fence you’re sitting). Knowing how people behave can help you design things that allow them to do things better (open jars while suffering from arthritis, heat houses without destroying the planet, communicate with relatives on the other side of the world, express themselves through clothes etc) or stop them doing it (stealing mobile phones, falling over things, smoking, driving too fast, watching Channel 5 etc).
Sometimes these things are the result of someone sitting in a room and waiting for that eureka moment – that’s the classic, romantic image of where ideas come from. But that almost never happens. More often it comes from observing people and asking questions like “why do they do that?” or “why don’t they do this?” or “what would happen if they…”, and so on. It also comes from mixing one discipline with another to see what happens. (For more on this, check out the book Where Good Ideas Come From - highly recommended). Another reason why getting rid of one branch of human knowledge and only funding research and teaching in another is possibly the craziest idea since pre-roasted roast potatoes that you have to warm up in the oven – I mean, think about it.)
When Newton “discovered” gravity, the world didn’t suddenly become a death trap as previously floating objects fell to the ground. Before Newton, it was obvious that things stayed on the ground, or (glass half empty moment) refused to float happily in the air. What Newton did was take the “obvious” and explain it, show why things fall to earth. Discovering that then opened up a whole new world of opportunities. Like aircraft, space travel, discovering new planets, missiles, nuclear weapons, cricket, and snowball fights.
Now it has to be said that the vast majority of students who blogged about Snoop and started off with “this seems obvious” then went on to say “but…” and explain why pointing out the, as Basil Fawlty would say “bleedin’ obvious” revealed things about the way people behave, and how they themselves behave that they hadn’t noticed before. It’s like listening to a recording of your voice and realising you keep saying the same word over and over.
But back to language. Snoop is written for a “lay” audience – non-experts. To make the topic accessible, he writes in plain English. But the author is an academic, and his work is the result of years of research. Because of his use of simple language, some people can easily miss the academic roots of the work, and mistake Snoop for a sort of new-age self-help cod-psychology book that attempts to pigeon-hole people and condemn them forever to live their lives in certain ways. Which is what I warned students against doing when encountering the use of the word “class” in this semester’s lectures and readings. People are individuals and behave individually, but taken as a whole it is possible to categories them in ways that are broad brushstrokes – they explain the group if not the individuals within that group. Our level 3 students recently did a “learning styles” questionnaire and the jury is out on whether such things exist – can you really say someone learns best in a particular way? Reading the third year blogs most, if not all, have spotted this and realised the point is not to judge, or predict, or pigeon-hole, but to provoke reflection – sometimes doing a survey that says “you are this type of person” results in you thinking “really? Am I? Let me ponder on that”. It might turn out that the survey came up with the wrong answer, but now you can explain why it’s wrong. The worst thing you could do with something like that is say “oh am I? Wow. I will now live my life thinking that’s what I should do”. Going back to “class” for a minute, that’s where the term becomes bad – telling someone that because they are “working class” they must behave in a certain way and never consider behaving in any other way. That’s not how we use the word in the course.
So language is important. When I use the word “class” I don’t mean it in the way it’s often been used in other contexts. When I ask students to look at other people’s living space and come to some sort of judgement I’m not asking them to embarrass/insult themselves or their subjects. I’m asking them to think – possibly for the first time – about how our personality is communicated in the things we do or wear or buy, and how we make judgements about others based on those things. You look at my CD collection without knowing me, you decide I’m educated, refined, perhaps posh. You know me first, you look at the CDs and think I’m educated, open to new ideas, disorganised. Which is true?
That’s why I’ve asked students to look at images belonging to people they don’t know – if they hadn’t, they’d have looked at the images and noticed how they confirm what they already know. They’d ignore subtle clues, or fit them in to an existing narrative. This way, they have to construct the narrative first, then see how the other person reacts.
And this is why we introduce the concept of the Johari Window, because sometimes in doing things like this we find out things about ourselves we didn’t know. How we react to that is something psychologists have looked at for a long time. Design and psychology overlap (as do design and sociology, and lots of other ologies!) and having at least a basic grasp of psychology can have a huge effect on your design – either in terms of how you go about it, or understanding how people relate to it.
By the way, just as designers wouldn’t like it if a psychologist came up to them and started telling them how to do design, it gets psychologists mad when designers start pretending they know how people tick… always respect other people’s expertise!