Beginning Some Thoughts on Learning Design

I just started watching a documentary called Objectified. It’s amazing so far. Here’s the trailer. Really… I wouldn’t put the trailer up front here unless I thought it would structure the way you read my subsequent post. So watch it. Please. (he, he.)

After watching about 30 minutes of the documentary so far, I’ve started really thinking through what I myself know about design. Those thoughts quickly led me to rephrase my reflection as “What are some of the central ideas to my own philosophy of design?”

What follow is me starting to think about that question…

Objects should somehow express their use. Objects (interfaces) should be their own instruction manuals. (Is this Norman’s idea of affordance? We seem to have co-opted the term to mean not just what use is suggested, but instead what uses is a thing (a modality in reference to Kress’s work) good for? To what uses does it lend itself? There’s an element of inherence. Mmmm. I don’t know. That seems to be a bit too rooted in material, and not enough in design. There’s got to be some sort of balance.

There are all sorts of ways for an interface to suggest function. (Or should this discussion be about possibility? About option?)

Years ago, buttons not only marked something as clickable, but also made a sort of argument for clicking. Before that, the altered color of linked text performed much the same function.

Here are two ways to think about affordances and design. Sort of two different relationships between a designer and an object. Do people react to something inherent (read: cultural) in a shape, material, or design decision? Another way to ask the question is to ask if there are certain predictable solutions to elicit desired actions on the part of a user?

For example, let’s say you walk into a completely white, featureless room. You approach t

For example, imagine a completely white, relatively featureless room. Only a doorway. The only object in the room is a seamless 6′ x 6′ x 6′ stainless steel box. Each side of the box is broken into even 12″ x 12″ squares of different textures. Some resembling different textures of rock. Some with tiny, raised dots. Some perfectly smooth. Some with parallel lines of in different weights. On the side of the box opposite from the door through which you entered, one of the 12″ panels, at eye level, has been cut out and replaced with clear glass. On the side of the box facing the door through which you entered is a circle of stainless steel, raised about 1/4″ with a ring of space separating it from the panel in which it is centered. Now imagine someone entering the room without any instructions. How strongly do you sense that you can guess what might happen?

This, I think, is one essential way of thinking about design as both a process and form. The question I ask at the end of the description is really important. I don’t ask what will happen because there’s no way to know what will happen. Instead, what’s important to think about with this example is the strength of association between intended function, designed form, use predicted, and function realized. All of it is guesswork. But it’s guesswork based on many, many different factors.

Which I’ll try to get to tomorrow…

Question: I’ve had a very difficult time finding books (or sites) about designing the sorts of design challenges that interest me: Academic. Digital. Most Web-design books focus on e-commerce, non-profits organizations, or portfolios. Not much about digital argument. Any ideas? Touchstones for you folks?

(I’ve noticed that most people who respond to questions on my blog tend to email me instead of posting the question. I try to respond to them all, posted or not. So if you’ve got a question, comment, suggestion, or response, and you don’t feel like posting as a comment, that’s cool. Feel free to send me the message directly. Best… T.)