design language practice and theory 



updated: july 2007

Reflections in a distant mirror

It is curious that design and  particularly industrial design, even if we accept hypothetically their purposive direction toward a good end goal, is partly achieving the opposite effect: clogging towns, poisoning nature, mesmerizing minds. Why is this so? 
Many people think that it is a question of lack of technological and organizational competence and that computers and other instruments will eventually enable clever organizers  and politicians to correct the actual course of history. I have my doubts and I think that we should delve deeper into the mechanisms of our mind to discover and perhaps overcome some hidden limits of our actual thought patterns.

All living organisms use their experience for survival, significantly in humans by creating instruments or prosthesis that allow for their accommodation and adaptation in respect to his environment. The tricotomy man - prosthesis - environment is essentially founded on the notion of 'interface'. The interface is the locus of interaction of the triadic terms. In this view, language and signage are typical instruments of management of interfaces.
In the course of the history of interfaces man has  transformed his environment; he has operated as an adapter of the environment to supposed human needs; he introduced artificial corrections in the environment as to constrict it to behave, create, act and react more proper to human beings, that is in a more human way. He introduced humanized components or organs such as pushbuttons, monitors, alarms, and also furniture, mechanized transport, housing: all the equipment of our society. Environmental signs rightly tend to become more humanal.

This did not go without a reflective transformation of the human mind itself. The mind became accommodated to this transformed environment or, more precisely, it wrote technological information or memes on the reconstructed environment in its memory . The artificial, in this process, becomes more and more perceived as natural. We drive cars or manage computers with naturality, automatically: their signs became part of us. This alienation is a step towards a robotization of humans. Ergonomy, concerned with the man-object or man-machine interface, acts within this limits. It treats men like extensions of machines  that reason and act like mechanisms. To achieve that it uses signals and codes. We stop at red traffic lights. Marketing analyses human behavior and work out sales strategies as if consumption and profit, rather than values in life or creative stimuli, were the final goal of the production line. 

This partial self identification of humans with environmental powers is diachronically present in society as for example their mythical representation or in totemism: new is the introjection of prosthesis as normative signs. The popular perception of nature as a primary environmental power has still the connotation of deity or superior living being as one can see in expressions such as  'offending' it. The ecological movement is  a common expression of this ideology. Industrial design appears in this perspective in a paradoxical light: on one side it endeavors to design industrial products that correspond, functionally and esthetically, to human needs and on the other hand it proclaims war to the waste of materials and the end of consumerism. In reality it is concerned with the design of the interfaces between man and environment as expressed in products. Design language or signage is the instrument of this interaction.

The interface, through its instruments, works thus in both directions adapting the environment to man and accommodating man to the environment.(n)

Whereas, as far as the functional relations between persons and objects or products are concerned, the optimization of the interface is probably within a reasonable reach of designers, things become more complicated in respect to the relations between groups and the global environment. A good design permits  the user to interact to his satisfaction with his environment but it gives frustratingly no guarantee for a functional relationship on a socioeconomic scale. Inadequacies  exist of course also often on the personal level. We can take the example of electronic instruments such as computers or TV sets, that remain still difficult to program. The reason is that engineers work with algorithms  that do not correspond to the algorithms of the human brain. We just are not reasoning on a digital basis. We would like sometimes to order the machine to do something in a certain way or direction using fuzzy logic. The interface and its signage can  in reality not be limited to its functional or rational  character to be fully satisfactory or worse it might have even counter indicative effects. I propose here to have a closer look into the structure and mechanisms of signage of interfaces, into the form and content of its messages. 

The form of a message and its components is not just limited to the expression of its, intended function, but contains and conveys meanings about itself,  in its peculiar way of expression. The very general word 'esthetics' is one possible name for this area of epistemology, others could be 'metaphysics' or 'anthropology'. They all concern  the variable interpretation of the interface and its signage. The whole arsenal of rhetoric and mythology with its concepts of analogy, similarity, oxymora, enigma's, metaphors, symbols, etc. is active in this context. Form and function interact on this level of the interface and can not be artificially separated, as  the engineering approach to design pretend to decree. 

Can the expression of form be exclusively determined by the functions of the product? The answer is apparently 'yes'  but even in that case a local interpretation of the translation of function into form will take place. Actually any function can be expressed in our post industrial society  in an infinite number of different, but fully efficient, forms. The development of the technology of materials and of production processes yield an increasing freedom of this expression so that design or the metadesign of design language became more a matter of self imposing limits or rules. 

We can for instance limit formal expression to its minimal terms as in a built-in refrigerator as a modular component in a kitchen wall. This product than will loose its identity and assume the formal characteristics of its environment like the mimicry of an insect in nature adopting the comprehensive significance of its environment. 
We can also reduce forms to geometric simplicity and achieve the opposite effect of evidencing the product like in the red-blu chair of Rietveld. Its morphology and the implied semantic meaning are than balancing of opposites such as horizontal-vertical, male-female, limit and continuity, symbolizing universal harmony. Rietveld said it not to pretend to be a chair but a poster manifesting Neoplastic language.

Porsche 356
Delgado's Porsche

We can also  introduce morphological forms in mechanical products like in the Porsche 358, or even in a supersonic aerplane at a first sight decreed by aerodynamics, that assuming formal characteristics of an animal, becomes less alien or even friendly to our own vital nature. Such formal expressions reveal generally deep convictions and anxieties and their effect on the users should not be underestimated: they are symptomatic for social dynamics and the consequent development of variety in lifestyles,  they influence the attraction of products and, in a more subtle way, the development of  thought patterns and convictions, just like philosophy. Because these expressions are not in spoken or written language, and thus not open to frontal logical analysis, but in visual signs they can be seen as  symbols, passwords or 'shibboleth'   reflecting meanings located the depth of the subconscious. Where else should one look for  the source of creative energy? These meanings are mirrors of utopia. I am convinced that in these quarters, in this intuitive borderline area, our strategy for survival eventually will be decided.

The proposed good end of design is: to eliminate or to alleviate the conflict between man and nature by adaptation and accommodation. This effort is mentally and physically  evidenced by the signage of the interface, that we design by introjection of humanal or technological signs in the environment and by incorporating of environmental or technological signs in humans. The functional and formal relations between man and products, in their distinction between the living and the artifice, are thus tending to complementary integration and substitution. Technology reveals here its Darwinistic role in the struggle for survival of the human kind. This affirmation does by no means suggest a new green ideology: it merely tries to understand what is going on in the field of design and more generally in society and  in which direction we seem to be moving. More and more technology will be both physically and mentally transplanted in humans, more and more humanal and natural characteristics will be incorporated into our products and artificial environments. The end we are striving at is the symbiosis of man and his environment. This in itself is neither good nor bad: the result at its best will be an upgrading of human qualities, or else, at its worse, a loss of human competence and gradual degradation of the species.

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(n)Timothy Williamson, "Knowledge and its Limits", Oxford University Press, New York, 2000
Williamson distinguishes and analyses the very of the relation between man and his environment as expressed in Knowledge and Action,
Action being the response to adapt the world to the human mind or desire,
Knowledge as the result of an effort to adapt the human mind to the world dispensing with belief.
   andries van onck