Thursday, April 16, 2009

An excerpt from The Neon Blackboard

In this modern era of simplicity, convenience and iEase, it's doubly interesting to read near-forty-year-old discourse on designing for human factors. It gives one pause for reflection on its timely message. In these paragraphs, as in myriad others throughout the book, Papanek invokes a higher conscientiousness, not only for design and designers but for society's systems and the objects and artifacts therein. What's most striking in this read is the utter timelessness of the advice: suggesting inclusiveness across fields is forever good counsel -- all told, why should biologists, economists, sociologists, healthcare-professionals, designers, fishermen, philosophers and policy-makers not acknowledge their common human bond and, well, bond? My ideas are not that far from yours. And if they are, some point on our respective orbits of understanding are bound to bind.

Currently, there is an ever-increasing attitude that strives to keep designers convincedly making smooth, outwardly simple products with brilliantly efficient, functional, and neatly-tucked innards. Colour it clinical and soften every edge, lest an angle be felt, lest the user harness his haptic synapses, communicate with a surface, a material, a joint, and know something therefrom. Look around: planned obsolescence and socio-personal responsibilization do not go hand in hand.  In fact, they remain diametrically opposed. The former keeping pretty things at arm's reach, newness being the order of the day, while the latter causing you to ask questions about why you possess such and such an item, what it does, and how best you can optimize its use.

We are far from wielding mammoth's femurs as bludgeons to secure against aggressors, but when you imagine the effort of a Neolithic someone to obtain such a tool then empathize to its potential future uses, you begin to appreciate the connectivity and relevance of how that bone felt, wrapped in a clenched palm.

From here to there,


Chronically, we have failed to distinguish the means from the ends, and we have made mechanical what should have remained manual, and have made automatic that which might have been more rationally replaced with an entirely different system.  A good example of such wasted energy is the automatic gear shift. The actual energy expended by the driver when shifting gears is incomparably smaller than the energy expended in manufacturing the automatic shift, not to mention the energy required to supply the factory and the automobile with the additional raw materials and man-hours required to make it. To quote Bob Malone (in an unpublished paper from 1957) on this:
Is the automatic gear shift then a true advance in humane design or not? Since it tends to remove man from a basic and relatively simply use of his motor responses, rather than to simplify and integrate the processes, we can see that the validity of the automatic gear shift is illusory. When a true need or desire is satisfied for a passive human being without effort, the result is not gratification, but rather a more complex level of dissatisfaction. The man caught helplessly in a natural catastrophe has good reasons to think about human dignity and to wish that the material necessities of his life could be met more simply.
Victor Papanek
Design For the Real World, p. 258-9