Archive for Philosophy

Design-fantasy and design-vanity

15 May 2009

This is a nice bookshelf. Doesn’t it look nice, with its 9 books and its trendy little lamp and preposterously cute little yellow fruit bowl with only perfectly green pears in it?

I’d buy that bookshelf. I’d buy it and take it home, and with this picture in my mind I’d look forward to how nice and uncluttered my space would look once the shelf is set up in my apartment. And then I’d get it home, and lovingly arrange all my stuff in it, and be completely disappointed.

Why? Because I don’t have 9 books, I have 200. I have stacks of magazines I like to keep, and photos of friends and family, and I have random things I like that are not trendy lamps or preposterously cute fruit bowls, but that I like to look at nonetheless. And like most people, I don’t buy 10 pieces of the same kind of fruit all at once.

I know this is a photo from a magazine (Dwell), and that the goal is to sell bookshelves. And for this purpose, the styling in this photo is clearly effective. But the copy alongside the photo suggests that this bookshelf is designed for the way people really use bookshelves, with accommodations for taller and shorter books in different kinds of piles. If that’s really the case, then the promise of this shelf is to make an ordinary pile of crap look orderly and beautiful, which would be a remarkable feat and would merit a lot of magazine space and attention. The photo does nothing to affirm the verbal claim, however, nor does it do anything to educate the user on how they might arrange their stuff to make it look more aesthetically pleasing. If anything, this photo tells us that this is not a functional piece of furniture, but rather a very large decorative element. Like the closet ads that show perfectly organized systems of entirely blue clothes, or pristine kitchens that are gorgeous if you have a full-time staff on hand to wipe the smudges off the stainless steel every hour, these are design fantasies, completely removed from real people and real life.

Designers love beauty. It’s a goal, stated or implicit, of most designers to do work that makes the world more beautiful. But sometimes we fall so in love with the beauty of our own work that we put on blinders to the context in which it will live. We fabricate circumstances to make the work seem beautiful, focusing on how it will look in showrooms and photos, not how it will live in apartments and homes. These exercises flatter our vanity, but they are mostly self-delusion. If we were serious about making the world a more beautiful place, we’d start designing a bookshelf by bringing in a truckload of normal people’s stuff. We’d seek to make the furniture recede and the beauty of the things come forward, or design something that puts the furniture in real harmony with the contents. And once we’d designed this, we’d want to show the achievement with the ugliest mess of stuff we could find. Because if it were truly beautiful, it would shine through whatever we throw at it, and we’d have nothing to hide.

Defining joy: some early thoughts

11 February 2009

The very first task for this project on the aesthetics of joy is to understand what joy is: how it works in the body and the brain. If our objective is to create joy, then we must first know what joy is. (It’s also essential to know what joy is not, though I’ll come to this later.)

I’ve been weeding through a number of emotional models, trying to understand how emotions actually work – what are the mechanisms, neural pathways, and chemicals that trigger various emotions? A number of the theories I came across suggest a causal relationship between the physical behaviors and reactions of an emotion and the cognitive perception of that emotion, but not in the order we might think. We like to think our brains control our bodies, but actually some psychologists believe that it is the pre-conscious reactions of our bodies that make us feel a certain way. The James-Lange hypothesis, for example, suggests that felt emotions are the perception of autonomic physical responses to external stimuli. So, in other words, the presence of a snake triggers visceral changes that prime us to react to the threat, such as a quickening heart rate, and it’s the brain’s perception of the change in bodily state that makes us feel the emotion “fear”.

The research on facial feedback is another example, where the same idea has been proposed regarding facial expressions. We think that we smile because we are happy, but actually, some research shows that at least to some extent, the smile comes before the emotional feeling of happiness, and that inducing a smile by contracting a specific set of muscles can make a person feel happier.

In his book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Antonio Damasio continues down this line of reasoning, suggesting that emotion, consisting of the set of bodily responses to a stimulus, and the corresponding feeling in the mind are causally related in the same way. In other words, the body reacts to the stimulus by producing an emotional response – in the case of joy, this might be a smile or laughter, a relaxing of major muscles, the production or suppression of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, and so on. The mind then perceives this physical response and appraises the situation, producing a feeling that is entirely internal. Interestingly, a stimulus in Damasio’s world can be either a real event in the environment or it can be a memory.

Damasio’s is the most cohesive account of the this theory I’ve yet read, and though there are quibbles with it, right now I’m finding it a useful framework to start to understand how joy works. Joyful stimuli lead to joyful physical reactions which lead to the feeling of joy. In this framework there are three major areas to explore: triggers, expressions, and feelings.

Which leads to questions… What are the physical expressions of joy? Are the expressions of joy different than the reactions of happiness? In other words, is there anything substantively different between joy and happiness at the level of expression, or is the different in the cognitive appraisal, dictated by context and experience, of the emotional sensations experienced. And then, does that mean that the triggers of joy and of happiness are the same, but are contextually different? Or are they fundamentally different?

One hypothesis could be that joy is an intense form of happiness that arises from the same stimuli but under different conditions… For example, seeing a good friend for a planned dinner might elicit happiness, but seeing a friend who has come in from out of town unexpectedly would elicit joy. Again, expectations play a role. Another hypothesis might be that joy is qualitatively different from happiness and that the triggers are just fundamentally different in nature. For example, a rainbow makes you feel joyful but it is unlikely to create a real sense of happiness. Joy is intense and comes in moments, whereas happiness is more even-keeled, but lasting. This would seem to suggest that they cannot be merely single-axis variants of the same thing…

Image from flickr member Orazio.

Joy and expectation

11 February 2009

My first way in to trying to understand what joy is has been to take examples of joyful objects and experiences and try to observe commonalities and patterns. In discussions with friends and family, one theme has emerged again and again: the contradiction of our expectations in a happy or pleasurable way.

Essentially, what I’ve just said in too many words is “good surprise.” A rainbow is a good surprise, as is a snowfall, or a visit from the ice cream man (maybe), and all these things are joyful. (Again, there are exceptions – a snowfall isn’t joyful if you have to get to work in treacherous conditions – but for many people, the sensory experience is an enormously positive trigger.)

Joy is so much more than just surprise, though. Things can be joyful without sneaking up on us. Another way our expectations can be subverted is by the sheer implausibility of them, the mystery of how they work. In this category are things that seem to controvert our expectations of how the world works, based on cultural mores, beliefs inculcated through life experience, and our obeisance to the laws of physics. Balloons and bubbles to me are joyful in this way. We know through our education how these things work, but we still feel a visceral wonder at their ability to exist. Rainbows and snow are also in this category, as are the Wii and the multitouch mechanism of the iPhone. These are expectations disrupted by magic, and interestingly we do not need to be surprised by them to be delighted by them. The Wii is still delightful on the 257th use, just as you can still be delighted by bubbles even if you are blowing them yourself and know when and where they will appear.

I also think there are expectations that are so subtle they can be disrupted in correspondingly subtle ways. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade strikes me as an unbelievably joyful spectacle (though I’ve had pushback on this from balloon- and crowd-haters – as with anything, there is always dissent). The sight of those giant balloons transforms the city into a toy city, and all the people on the streets into toy people. The insertion of a new element (cartoon balloons) creates a massive scale shift, causing us to see the city in a new way and disrupting our expectations of how it should look. These are expectations so basic we don’t even think about them, and when they are disrupted, we don’t even realize that they have been.

Not every joyful experience fits in here, though. I think there are also joyful sensory triggers – aromas, shapes, curves, and colors – that work in a different way on our psyche, and I’m still trying to reconcile these with this set of ideas around expectations.

Thesis: Aesthetics of Joy

10 February 2009

The major project I’ll be devoting this year to is my master’s thesis, exploring the subject Aesthetics of Joy.

Aesthetics of Joy lies at the foundation of an idea I want to advance called emotional sustainability, which is about cultivating more sustainable relationships between people and their objects through greater attention to the emotional quality of the design. Much has been said about designing for sustainability in recent years, but nearly all of it is functional. Yes, we need to design with less toxic materials, make lighter and less material-intensive products, and design for disassembly and recycling. But if we are to create a more sustainable world, we will need to address the issue of chronic overconsumption, and to do this, we as a culture will need to completely transform our emotional relationship with our stuff.

The current paradigm runs on high passions and an addictive, ecstatic rush at point of sale. This vein of emotions is not sustainable in human relationships and it’s not sustainable in human-object relationships either. Much of design feeds into this emotional roller coaster by playing within an aesthetics of consumerism which offers an intense but superficial pleasure and little in the way of a long-term relationship. So, we need to rethink the messages we are encoding in the way we design products and experiences.

Many emotions will play a role in restoring the emotional sustainability of objects. But I feel that joy is special in a way that is still somewhat ineffable to me. Perhaps there is a biological basis that I will discover in my research, but for now the one essential observation is that joy is a renewable emotion that lends itself to durability. Joy’s essential property is that the same object or experience can trigger joy over and over again. Swinging on a swingset, blowing bubbles, or putting one’s hand into a bowl of jellybeans can be a virtually inexhaustible reservoir of joy; like a sun for the psyche, it will never run out. This puts it in direct opposition to the thrilling nature of today’s consumption, which is based on novelty and intensity, and ultimately fizzles out.

Joy is a very particular thing. It is not happiness, which is too vague and encompassing a positive feeling. Nor is it contentment, with its snug, muted warmth. It is not euphoria, animating the spine with shimmering electricity, nor is it the zen-like feeling we call bliss. Joy inhabits that ineluctable space between wonder and pleasure, neighboring delight, but somehow more profound. Joy is momentary, but not temporary. Surprising, but not necessarily in a spectacular way. It is personal but at the same time universal, an essential emotion that renews and uplifts the human psyche.

It is these universals that I’m after in this project. I want to distill down the essence of joy, the basic aesthetic and intellectual principles that are capable of being experienced by everyone. Over the next 11 months, I’ll be doing fieldwork, concept tests, and interviews with experts that will hopefully clarify what these universals are, and I’ll post thoughts and ideas as I go.

On process and production

20 January 2009

I’m currently in the process of getting some of my work up online, and as I do this, I’m realizing there are aspects of process that I really want to share. Before I went back to design school, I had very little idea of how most things were made, and learning about manufacturing and production has been one of the most thrilling aspects of becoming a designer. I’m fascinated by molds, lathes, mills, laser-cutters, and all the other technical and not-so-technical tools and processes used to transform material into product.

But beyond my own fascination, I feel that it’s important for everyone to start becoming more aware of how the things we use are made. One of the biggest challenges in creating more sustainable production and consumption cycles is that we have lost touch with these processes. Products appear on our shelves and in our homes like magic, and it’s easy that way not to appreciate the tremendous amounts of energy, expertise, and material that went into getting them there. I feel about products much the way that many in the slow and local food movements feel about food – that our loss of connection to the production of our consumables makes it hard for us to understand why we should value these things.

Understanding how things are made also helps consumers parse tradeoffs in cost and quality. Is the product more expensive because of the name and logo, or is there actual handcrafting that augments the value and therefore the cost? Manufacturers are catching on to the idea that a story of craft helps justify a premium, but how to know how much truth is behind the story without some education in the basic ways that materials are shaped and formed?

I’ll be showing photos from my own processes in future posts, but for now, I wanted to show this photo from a silk factory I visited in the Fergana Valley, in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is famous for the now-ubiquitous ikat print, which there is made from weaving a silk warp with a cotton or silk weft. But the silk all starts this way, as pods which are boiled in an iron vat over an open fire. The women use sticks to gather the strands from the pods as they are loosened by the hot water and pass them over a hook to a woman who spins the filaments together into a continuous thread.

I know that most silk factories are more modern-looking than this Uzbek one, but I never buy silk at Mood without thinking of matter-of-fact way these women went about that first step of coaxing open the papery pods and reeling in those translucent fibers.

Digging out

29 December 2008

The end of the semester ran away from me, and I can’t believe the most current snippets on here are from October. I guess that’s what happens in design. You get inspired for months at a time, you ideate, you sketch and model and work out details. But then a moment comes when you finally have to execute, and in that span of weeks there’s room for nothing else: not sleep, not food, not friends, not exercise. Just making.

I’m off for the next three weeks, so there’s plenty of time for me to catch up. There’s a folder on my desktop with 50 or so links or images I wanted to write about, plus a few new projects and some evolution to do on the old ones. So, more to come as the new year gets going…

Aesthetics of Joy

12 October 2008

One of the ideas I’ve been ruminating over for my thesis is the question of the aesthetics associated with the emotion we call joy. What are the semiotics of objects and experiences that deliver this emotion of joy and how can we harness the knowledge of them to create products that are more joyful?

I was happy to stumble upon this TED talk by cognitive neuroscientist Al Seckel on designing joy. His talk mostly focuses on illusions and tromp l’oeil, but the more interesting aspect for me was his definition of a joyful experience as one in which “our expectations are violated in some pleasing way.” I think that’s a nice starting point for thinking about this topic. Where it gets tricky is in the field of product design, where we seek not to create a momentary illusion or temporary experience, but something that will deliver joy in a sustained way. There are too many one-liner products, jokes that are funny in the short-term but the appeal soon wears off. That kind of design is not compatible with my value system, unless the material that delivers the joke degrades as cleanly in the earth as it does in the mind.

I think an exploration into joy could offer a meaningful contribution to the field of design if it unearths principles that help us create products that deliver lasting joy – products that make us smile not just when we first encounter them, but every time we use them. To test the principles, one might design products whose sole function is to engender emotional wellbeing, like toys for adults where the premise isn’t about regression but about creating joyful moments in the user’s life, day after day.