Why I get emotional about design

When I use a product, I feel the milieu that produced it. Products are crystallized philosophies. In a designed object I feel people — the people who produced it and sometimes a precise person for whom an object is intended. This “personal from” and “personal to” is what makes design what it is.

When I get inspired or offended by bad design, precisely the personal from and to is what I am reacting to. In objects I sense all kinds of things about the producer: care, contempt, insight, vanity, poetry, banality, tyranny, playfulness, thoroughness, orderliness, arbitrariness, etc. And I also sometimes detect a consumer’s personality and worldview (for better or worse) — a person the producer had in mind for whom this thing is intended. And all too often I feel an anonymous vacuum where a producer or consumer should be. It is a thing from nobody and it is for anybody.


When I’ve felt betrayed by design it is when an organization did a “personality switch” on me, like an unfaithful friend. I can feel that the organization has come to see the world in a new way where there is no longer space for me to exist. The organization used to make things designed for me, but now they’re designing for someone else, or worse for everyone, which really means nobody.


Since we are once again in gift season, I will repost my “Design as gift” idea yet again, with the usual minor variations.

When one person gives another person a perfect gift, the gift is valuable in three ways:

  1. The gift itself is intrinsically valuable to the recipient. The gift is good because it makes life easier, more pleasant or more meaningful.
  2. The gift contributes to the recipient’s own self-understanding and sense of identity. The gift is a concrete example what the receiver experiences as good. It is a crystallization of the recipient’s ideals that reveals something important about the recipient that sometimes cannot be said.
  3. The perfection of the gift is evidence that the giver cares about and understands who the recipient is as an individual. The successful giving of a perfect gift demonstrates that the giver was moved to reflect on the recipient and has real insight into who they are as an individual, what they value and how they fit into the world.

Great design experiences are similar to gifts. When a design  is successful the user gets something valuable, sees tangible proof they are valued and understood, and experiences an intensification or expansion of their sense of self.


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