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Emotional Design
Why we love (or hate) everyday things
Donald Norman
Basic Books, New York, 2004
257 pages

Three Teapots
Attractive Things work better.
The Multiple Faces of Emotion and Design
Three Levels of Desgin: Visceral, Behavioral and Reflective
Fun and Games
People, Places, and Things
Emotional Machines
The Future of Robots
We Are All Designers

Norman has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from MIT and the U of Penn as well as a doctorate in Psychology. After having travelled through Britain, and being confronted with surprisingly idiosyncratic artifacts he wrote "The Psychology of Everyday Things" in 1988. This work is about his observations & interactions with those artefacts. Since then he is a consultant, advisor and board member of a variety of institutions and companies, and concerned about "usability". He has been lecturing at Harvard, Stanford among others. Recently he reinvented himself and describes his mission now as: "to help companies make products that appeal to the emotions as well as to reason."[1] Partly, he writes, "Emotional Design" was inspired by new scientific results in understanding the brain and that proof the importance of emotion in everyday life.

Norman wrote this book for the layman designer to provide him with a variety of views & perspectives of the emotional "dimensions" of products and media. In a nutshell the theory is that "attractive things work better because it is more pleasurable to engage with them." He introduces a number of methodologies to create a wider perspective upon the emotional sides of the world of designed artefacts. Finally he concludes with the very personal view that "we are all designers when we move furniture or things on our desks. (...) The best kind of design isn't necessarily an object, a space or a structure: it's a process - dynamic and adaptable. (...) The best designs are the ones we create ourselves (...) It is design that is in harmony with our livestyles."
"Professional designers (...) cannot make something personal (...). Nobody can do that for us: we must do it ourselves."

Norman begins with the statement that taste relies upon context and is "acquired". Olives are one of these acquired tastes. Their colour and taste otherwise suggest that they are "poison." In respect to research methodologies he continues that "one cannot evaluate an innovation by asking potential customers for their views." (This also reminds of Malcolm Gladwell and that people will reply that they want coffee as a "rich dark hearty roast" while the majority actually likes weak and milky coffee. )

Basically design was about "needs" a statement Charles Eames also makes in "Q & A." What about art? People are unaware of their artistic needs.

p. 48 "We become attached to things if they have a significant personal association, if they bring to mind pleasant, comforting moments. Perhaps more significant, however, is our attachment to places: favorite corners of our homes, favorite locations, favorite views. Our attachment is really not to the thing, it is to the relationship, to the meanings and feelings the thing represents."

"Csikszentimihaly and Rochberg-Halton identify "psychic energy" as the key. Psychic energy, by which we mean mental energy, mental attention. Csikszentimihaly's concept of "flow" provides a good example. In the flow state, you become so engrossed and captured by the activity being performed that it is as if you and the activity were one: You are in a trance where the world disappears from consciousness. Time stops. You are only aware of the activity itself. Flow is a motivating, captivating, addictive state. It can arise from transactions with valued things. "Household objects, "say Csikszentimihaly and Rochberg-Halton, "facilitate flow expereinces in two different ways. On the one hand, by providing a familiar symbolic context they reaffirm the identity of the owner. On the other hand, objects in the household might provide opportunities for flow directly, by engaging the attention of people."
Perhaps the objects that are the most intimate and direct are those that we construct oursevles, hence the popularity of home-made crafts, furniture, art. Similarly, personal photographs, even though they may be technically inferior: blurred, heads cut off, or fingers obscuring the image."

p. 75 He provides 3 mental images people have of design:
The designers mode & the users model. The way the designer conceived the artefact to be used - and the idea the "user" has of it. In an ideal world these would be identical. Isn't this to simple? I don't see this primarily as the difference between the maker & the user, but as perceptional differences among "people". 2 persons have 3 opinions. But as designers often conceive products for themselves "users" often have difficulties understanding these. The third model is the "system image" that the technical manual conveys.

The three levels of processing: Visceral (appearance), Behavioural (pleasure of use), Reflective (appearance)

p.82 "Visceral & behavioural reactions are subconscious. We are unaware of our true reactions and the true causes, the motives and reactions we associate with a product experience". Which is basic psychological knowledge.

p.87 Norman states that beauty worked on the reflective level, that it looked beyond the surface and came from conscious reflection. Another point i have difficulties comprehending. If anything "bridges" our conscious level - then it is beauty. It blinds us and short circuits our critical awareness more then anything else. I perceive it as rather "visceral" - to employ his categories - it first makes the spectator "desire" and then "reflect" what to do with it.

p.92 "Design is thought of as a practical skill, a profession - rather than a discipline."
By describing certain qualities of Google, the Bento-Box and a tea strainer he introduces "categories of pleasures" to the reader:
- physio-pleasures: sight, sound, smell, touch
- socio-pleasures: interaction with others
- psycho pleasures: peoples' reactions & state during use of product
- ideo-pleasures: reflections on experience
these categories seem to my too arbitrary.

p.107 "People pay less attention to familiar things, whether its a possession or even a spouse." Just like the Muskrats of Annie Dillard; she developed a technique to sneak up very close to these shy animals. This quote is intrically interwoven with the following one:

"Human adaptation creates a challenge for design, but an opportunity for manufacturers." A challenge of producing ever more flashy products, creating trends; A vicious cycle of evoking desires upon desires. Products and services to which people "numb" to (Oliver Grau) after exposure - and that need enforced stimulation in their successive iteration.
This is the core of the consumerist culture. Things are not designed to be "used" (nutzen) - but to be "consumed" (verbrauchen). In the sense that they are temporary & momentary, even bought spontaneously without a need - but to fulfil a spontaneous desire, a whim. Desirable products make use of consumers feelings of inner emptiness & meaninglessness (shopping sickness, that leaves consumers behind empty & unfulfilled) of actually just being a "consumer" and "user" who is not in control of the things / her life. ("consumption won't fill your void" Adbusters[2])
"Design" in this sense is the root of the evil of materialistic culture, creating desire for things not needed, consuming things; Where the "users" engagement is just a short interplay of the long story of the "products" rotting on a garbage dump for centuries thereby ruining & wasting recourses.

p.109 Introducing Christopher Alexanders' "Zen view"[3] is a subtle and elegant example to avoid the effect of "numbing"(Oliver Grau) through "overexposure." The idea is to constrain the access to the seductive experience, so that it can be enjoyed over and over again. Somewhat the mechanism of "positive feedback/reinforcement" comes to mind which turns "gamblers" into gambling addicts. There the unpredictability of the winning or gratification experience is resulting in compulsive and obsessive repetitive behaviour. This has been proofed in experiments on rats.
Here is an excellent example of the Zen view in Venice documented in pictures:

[4] Kashlavsky & Shedroff hierarchy: "Seduction experience with a physical product: Phillipe Starck's juicer"
Entices by diverting attention. Delivers surprising novelty. Goes beyond obvious needs and expectations. Creates an instinctive response. Espouses values or connections to personal goals. Promises to fulfil these goals. Leads the casual viewer to discover something deeper in the juicer experience. Fulfils these promises.

People, Places & things: five primal social cues
physical: face, eyes, body, movement
language: preferences, humour, personality, feelings, empathy,
social dynamics: turn taking, co-operation, practice for good work, answering questions, reciprocity
social roles: doctor, teammate, opponent, teacher, pet, guide

From there he moves on to mobile phones. This passage is quite interesting. Starting with his observation of a papal delegation in Rome, which people had phones and how they used them.
"With the cellphone you enter a private space that is virtual. A private space in public.
He concludes with a statement that could be made by Carl Jung (and which in fact is the only thing i quote quite often):
"By continuously being in communication with friends across a lifetime, across the world we risk the paradox of enhancing shallow interactions at the expense of deeper ones. (...) But the more we hold short,, brief, fleeting interactions and allow ourselves to interrupt ongoing conversations and interactions, the less we allow any depth of interaction, any depth to a relationship. "Continuously divided attention" is the way Linda Stone has described this phenomenon, but no matter how we may deplore it, it has become a commonplace aspect of everyday life."
Perhaps one of the predecessors of undivided attention was Wilhelm von Humboldt with lifelong international contacts sustained by a dozen letters a day.

From there he reels of into speculations about robots and the future of robots. This may have been an interesting presentation - but less interesting in a text about "Emotional Design." One of the more interesting quotes about robots here comes from Sherry Turkle: "It tells you more about us as human being than it does about robots."

With its wide variety of discussed topics and semi-scientific structure the work is less helpful then mercurial. I have the impression that it was created from existing lectures or presentations that were written over time and in themselves made sense. Being poured into the larger context of a publication the result is ambiguous, arbitrary and convoluted. As my colleague PJ Walters has put it: "shallow oversimplifications".
Or a phrase Norman himself uses: "inconsitent & erratic." With its conclusions drawn from practical examples that often contradict the categories they are supposed to support (visceral vs. reflective) it is confusing the reader and obfuscating the real implications behind it. It reads like the poorly conceived result of a brainstorming session of what "emotional aspects of design" may be. Yet a nucleus for further and more solid enquiries.
"Emotional Design" could also be seen as an encouragement for "screen designers" to make use of even more unnecessary but "emotional" flash features ...

In Japan "Emotional Design - why we love (or hate) everytday things" has the sub-title "Things that make us smile." Very japanese - love & hate might be perceived too strong words there.
On the other hand it is total deception, because that is even less what the book is about.


Another review may be found here:
also check Cory Doctorow's notes there.

last update: 4/20/02010 15:48

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