Monday, May 09, 2005


emotionally accessible

The New York Times reports today that the iPod has lost its trendiness, having become so ubiquitous that even the US President owns one (how uncool!). With that, the emotional capital of iPods is set to plummet. The anecdote has me thinking how much how ephemeral many examples of emotional design are. In the case of a trendy object, the emotional satisfaction is based on the need of the user to be a part of collective, but somewhat exclusive, trend.

The confusion between trendiness and emotional design has been at least partly spawned by Don Norman. Norman graces the cover of his latest book with a Philippe Starck juicer, and photos of other cult products such as the Mini Cooper appear throughout. I don't dispute that fetish design has a strong emotional component. But fetish design is a self-limiting strategy -- it doesn't scale, it doesn't last. By focusing on such examples, we loose site of the broader emotional needs of users.

Sometimes people set up an artificial conflict between design for delight, and design for use. The movement for Universal Design, design that works for people with disabilities, has begun to be criticized for being Puritanical and anti-fun. An article in the journal of the Danish Design Council last year was scathing about the perceived straitjacket of Universal Design. A remarkable commentary from a nation that has been historical leader in the field of inclusive design. What I find curious about arguments that inclusive design is moralistic not pleasurable, is the implied suggestion that people with disabilities don't have emotional needs, or perhaps have different emotional needs than the general population.

People often equate design with the visual, but doing so grossly limits the remit of design. Norman is certainly aware that design has non-visual elements, but he chooses to focus almost exclusively on visual ones when discussing emotional design. His opening motto, "attractive things work better", is squarely aimed at visual attractiveness. He talks about other "visceral" qualities in passing, but it is the eyes that dominate his understanding. Even his discussion of "reflective" design relies on how one interpreters visual elements.

When people equate emotional design with visual delight, and accessibility with visual impairment, a conflict would seem to exist. I know accessibility is far broader than visual impairment, but if we do look at people with visual impairments, does emotional design have anything to offer them? Of course it does, though one would need patience to find examples from Norman's writings.

All people have core emotional needs. Few psychotherapists will tell you that their clients complain about the lack of visual delight in their lives. Visual delight is marvelous, of course, for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy it. But core emotional issues are generally related to social relationships and life meaning. Design has impacts on both social relationships and life meaning. Designs are used as a communication medium and as a focus of social interaction. The designs people choose to use reflect their values, and sometimes shape those values by being tools to create. There is nothing inherently visual about these emotional aspects of design.

So I urge people to stop thinking about iconic design when thinking about emotional design. The wow factor doesn't last.

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