Norbert Bolz

The user-illusion of the world (2)

on the meaning of design

This magic is design's most important effect. Designers are indeed the masters of simplification. Their task is to reduce complexity in such a way that the user surface offers us a meaningful image, an image of meaning. When you turn on your computer, you don't see the dangerous logical profundities of the digital on the screen, but instead a series of trusted icons. And these icons suggest to you, as used to be the case in the world of people, that you're operating an analog device. Is this a terrible simplification or a benevolent one? Perhaps terrible simplifications only exist for the Enlightenment philosopher who fundamentally mistrusts surfaces. The designer, on the other hand, wants to seduce one towards use, and therefore has to whittle away people's fear of technology. Design, then, no longer strives for functional or objective transparence, but rather for security and the trust of the world - and is thereby more closely aligned with religion than with enlightenment.

'User' is the honourable name for the customers of simplicity. They don't want to know anything about programs and processors, but prefer instead to remain on the friendly user surface. This has consequences for our lifestyle. We have learned to take things at interface value, says Sherry Turkle correctly. We accept not knowing what's going on inside the Black Box computer because the knowledge of what's going on inside is not germane to understanding its social function.

The question of how a computer functions technically, thus, has nothing to do with the question of what it means socially. You can understand one without having the foggiest notion about the other. Who still looks under the hood these days when the car breaks down on the highway? You can't know everything, and at some point you have to say enough is enough in terms of details. This isn't a 'deficit in practice,' but rather the necessary separation of the wheat from the chaff. Indeed, I even suspect that the opposite may be true: 'practice' is the favourite term of the clueless. If you want to understand the computer as a medium, there's no point in taking it apart.

This is even confirmed by computer simulations which are used to develop interfaces in the design process. They relate primarily not to the technical object, but rather to the user. The product forms are treated like life-forms. But this also means that the simulation of hardware design is software-oriented as well. Ted Nelson summed it up in the handy phrase, A program is a design for events.

So you see, design has long since ceased to be the exclusive realm of the objective, but now increasingly invokes the mediumistic, above all in the world of computer-driven communication. And it now holds true for designers as well that the road is leading away from hardware and towards software. And although it's certainly still true that design enhances the world's readability, this is no longer achieved today by 'objectively' trying to glean form from function. A single but well-known example: it was the genius of Nicholas Hayek to launch the Swatch, a purely 'emotional' product, just when the previous standards of objectivity and functionalism had been rendered invalid by quartz technology. And precisely in this sense, the designer's task is becoming increasingly detached from concrete objectivity.

Gone are the blissful days of the 'new objectivity,' where things' forms followed their functions. This is because in the age of microelectronics, it's hardly possible any more for these functions to be illustrated - just witness the computer. To an exponentially increasing degree, the post-modern world consists of highly complex Black Boxes whose technical workings can only be explained by specialists. As I just mentioned, today's design no longer strives for functional or objective transparence, but rather for security and the trust of the world. The more complex our world becomes, the more urgent the design of the interfaces between people and systems becomes. And thus the successful design of everyday items is no longer positioned towards the object, but rather towards the subject.

Form now follows the feelings of consumers, and not the function of things. We can add here that the great emotions, our culture's grand loves and passions, have been displaced and are now longing for spaces where they can act themselves out. In the material world of modern civilisation, emotions are heading towards a chasm. You could say that we live in a vacuum of the great emotions. And this is where post-modern consumption jumps in. Emotional Design facilitates the transfer of 'interpersonal' values to the world of things. And that's why marketing and advertising are beginning to offer emotional patterns. In this context, that means learning from Hollywood.

Since the Pop Art revolution, one thing has become certain: emotions do not display their true intensity in life, but rather in the media and via consumption. And so today we have so-called 'theme worlds' which offer us a 'surreal' compression of experience. What they offer is even more real than reality itself. If you really want to experience something, you no longer look for this experience in empirical reality, but rather in its virtual counterpart - it's pliable, and less likely to break down.

Emotional Design now operates exactly like the media. It presents the product as an erotic event; human attraction can no longer compete with this. Media and the consumption of experiences submerge us in a world of virtual experiences – everything else, namely the real, is too dangerous. Emotional Design has two major sources of power: the impenetrability of our technological world and the vacuum of the great emotions.

Emotional Design furnishes our wayward emotions with an external grip: it offers emotional formulas. And in this sense, even German Romanticism was a kind of Emotional Design. You can't formulate Emotional Design's task more succinctly than Wackenroder did when he called it the compression of the meandering emotions which have been lost in real life. Emotional Design offers patterns upon which consumers can model their own emotions - and this is exactly what Hollywood films have been doing for years now. Communication design shapes the experiences within the medium of consumption. It is no longer everyday objects which are being designed, but rather relationship patterns.

And what does this mean for the economy? When you look at the market from the customer's perspective, the product is transformed into a problem solution or a wish fulfilment. And that's why the 'new marketing' sells goods as problem solutions. Anyone who buys something eventually turns up in the manufacturer's reports. So even hardware is now appearing in the form of a service. In other words, marketing necessarily has to be communication design, because communication no longer determines only consumption, but production as well.

A post-modern company's market range is shifting from products to problem solutions. Post-modern goods bear an informational character; companies which offer consulting, design and system management deal purely with information. And even traditional products can only be sold these days if they have a 'communicative index.' Communication, then, competes with consumption. Anyone who wants to hold his ground in the post-modern marketplace has to come up with forms of consumption which reflect the communicative desire. And marketing has to be communication design, since communication has now been superimposed onto consumption.

As we've seen, communication design is no longer directed at consciousness, but rather at its immune system, namely the emotions. Emotions correspond to patterns of relationships and are in a certain way learned. Thus it's possible to model emotions. Emotional Design crafts patterns of feelings, and I think that marketing managers could learn something decisive from cultural historians in this regard. In the ancient world, on the threshold of Western civilisation, emotions didn't originate spontaneously in people but were instead drilled into them 'by the gods.' Today we can say, very analogously, that emotions are drilled into us by design and by the media.

And now we finally come to the market of trends and lifestyles. We still know little of their logic, as the intellectuals don't like to get their hands dirty here. The market corrupts, trends are superficial, and the zeitgeist is nothing more than the spirit of the media tycoons - anyone who sees the world in this way can be regarded as an uncompromising Cassandra, whose seat of honour in the newspaper's Arts & Culture section is guaranteed. German profundity doesn't want to know anything about the zeitgeist, and this can only mean that its adherents still believe in the philosophy of history, or in universal principles and values. Yet anyone who describes cultural trends, i.e. who observes the 'surfaces' of society, still has to contend with the objection that his interpretation is wanting in rigor, context and foundation.

A classic insult from the world of German profundity is the notion of the 'cultural facade.' Yet in my view, anyone who still insists on tearing down this facade in the name of profundity, or in the name of the essential or of reality, still hasn't fully grasped the connection between cultural significance and form. The more the modern world becomes differentiated and pluralised, the more important its surfaces become. And thus in today's modern society, the cultural significance of playing with these forms and conventions is increasing. To distinguish means to have a sense for fine differences. And post-modern culture's ultimate formulation might well be: distinguo ergo sum – I distinguish, therefore I am.