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PV 21.9.09
Paolo Volonté
Designing communicating objects

   To design, as they say, is to modify the world, to act upon r...
Creating and communicating
In what sense, therefore, is a designer a communicator?
The commonplace view is that designers ...
user. This is especially the case when a device, for example a computer, comprises an
interface that interrupts the natura...
A teacup is after all nothing but a receptacle for a beverage (its ‘function’ as a tool). Yet
almost everyone in the Weste...
users and accumulate traces of these interactions. Thus objects, in analogy with human
beings, little by little construct ...
However, the advent of modern society has given a new imprint and different importance to
this ancient phenomenon. Modern ...
unprecedented extent, a system of signs sufficiently diversified so that it can act in the stead
of the language used in i...
does so principally, of inventing new ways for human beings to communicate. Designing
makes the world ‘better’ because it ...
addressee, without considering the problematic nature of this ‘passage’. How does an idea, an
item of information, an imag...
transcends itself and functions as a sign of something other: that little hole in the snow is not
only a hole but becomes ...
of the object, of the material sign, but a property of the experience that someone has of it.
Therefore it cannot in any w...
meanings through change in their physical environment. Hence, to communicate is not to
transmit or to share pre-packaged m...
In our society, objects, as said, are valuable instruments for interpersonal communication. As
a result, their design has ...
produce meanings, but material situations that are potentially meaningful. And the
responsibility for opening up such poss...
Munari Bruno (1971), Artista e designer, Laterza, Bari.
Nielsen Jakob (1993), Usability engineering, Academic Press, Bosto...
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Transcript of "Designing communicating objects, bu Paolo Volonté"

  1. 1. PV 21.9.09 Paolo Volonté Designing communicating objects To design, as they say, is to modify the world, to act upon reality in order to transform it. It is to introduce into the complexity of the real something that enriches it in the manner desired. Designers are not satisfied with the world as it is, with what they have inherited from their ancestors or from tradition. They want a new world; they seek to create a new world. They work so that the world is changed, transformed and improved. But in what direction? How can a ‘better’ world be attained? Reflection on design has abandoned the idea that its purpose is simply to make objects more functional, and therefore the world more practical, easier to use in order to achieve certain goals. Likewise abandoned has been the idea that the purpose of design is only to make objects more beautiful, and therefore the world more pleasant to live in. In contrast, it is usually stressed that design has “the task of enhancing the function of an object through its form” (De Fusco 2004, 197). From Bruno Munari (1971) to the contemporary designers interviewed by Harvey Molotch (2003, 53-90), it is widely believed that the fundamental concern of the designer should be with both form and function, finding an aesthetic solution to a functional problem. Yet not all designers are satisfied with this conception of their work. The scope of this essay does not allow me to explore the reasons for this discontent. But a clear symptom of this dissatisfaction is the fact that many designers have felt it necessary to develop new concepts with which to describe the activity of designing. Drawing on fashionable terminology, much use is made today of the term ‘communication’: at bottom, designers are communications workers, in the sense that their principal task is to ensure that the object is able to communicate as much as possible by itself, i.e. through its form, its own function. But can one be satisfied with this conception of design? I do not think so and consequently I intend to show, firstly, that design has to do with communication in a different and more sophisticated sense: since the advent of industrial society, design has been a prime protagonist of interpersonal communication processes. Secondly, and principally, I shall suggest that if one wants to fully understand the fundamental role performed by design in interpersonal communicative processes, one ought to discard the ingenuous view of communication as the ‘transmission’, or also the ‘sharing’, of information and adopt a more inferential conception of the type developed by pragmatics, but reinterpreted in phenomenological terms. 1
  2. 2. Creating and communicating In what sense, therefore, is a designer a communicator? The commonplace view is that designers belong to the category of so-called ‘creatives’: those in society who innovate the culture by inventing new forms, or by assembling existing forms and materials in innovative ways, thereby developing new styles and new tastes. It is usually recognized that such creativeness does not merely decorate or reshape objects, but seeks to give them the form best suited to their function. ‘Designing’ thus signifies giving the object a form that does not hinder, but instead helps, performance of the task assigned to it: form follows function. Contrary to this opinion (sometimes put forward even in the specialist literature), a large body of opinion maintains that the designer’s fundamental task is to create, not only forms compatible with the object’s functions but also, and above all, forms that communicate those functions to the consumer. The most successful design is therefore the one that replaces the instructions booklet. It is not necessary to read the instructions because the object speaks for itself: its form tells us how to use it, and for what purpose. This design centres not on the object and its technology but on the human being who uses it. The well-known reference for this current of thought is Donald Norman’s successful The Psychology of Everyday Things (1988). The book is founded on the idea that many of the dysfunctions of everyday life are due to bad design: that is, design which does not embody in the object the instructions for its use. Well-designed objects are easy to understand because they contain visible clues to their operation. On the contrary, since poorly designed objects provide no clues, or sometimes false clues, they can be difficult and frustrating to use. The task is therefore to design the object in such a form that it contains all and only the clues required by the user to understand it; or in other words, to understand its use and operation without having to conduct tests or read the instructions. In order to concretize this concept, Norman presents some norms that derive from it, for example, the principle that the number of controls on a technological object should correspond to the number of its functions, so that all its possible functions are visible and therefore perceived by the user. Another well-known manifestation of this current of thought is the notion of ‘usability’, which since its theorization by Jakob Nielsen (1993) has become a watchword especially in the design of websites and computer programs. Since usability consists in the degree of facility and satisfaction with which the interaction between the human being and the technological device takes place, also in this case the good designer designs the device so that it directly communicates its functions, and how these can be activated and regulated, to the 2
  3. 3. user. This is especially the case when a device, for example a computer, comprises an interface that interrupts the naturalness of the body’s interaction with the surrounding world. One distinctive feature of this conception of design is that it restricts communication to the relationship between the user and the object, as if other people did not exist. The object communicates with its user, more or less well, but it remains indifferent to the interactions with other people. Hence, the problem confronting the designer is to realize an object able to speak to those who use it (or who want to use it), nothing more. This is a somewhat solipsistic conception that has not been substantially attenuated in the most recent developments of Norman’s thought. He has become aware that the subject’s interaction with an artefact is mediated not only by perception, but also by emotion (see Norman 2004). But this is not enough for him to broaden his perspective, which is still confined to the user’s individual subjectivity. Here, communication takes place solely between the instrument and its master. This conception of the role of design in the contemporary world leaves me unconvinced, for it is almost claustrophobic in its view on the object and its user. Thus lost is the social setting surrounding the interaction between the person and things. To prevent such a loss, it is necessary, I think, to interpret the designer’s activity in light of the wide variety of forms of communication in which things are involved. Objects have a biography A first consideration in this regard is that the communication between an object and its user is much more complex than might be thought on the simple basis that every object contains (or does not contain) clues concerning its functions and its most appropriate use. And it is more complex because the form of the object is already, in itself, socially situated. It does not communicate only generic and abstract functions, but also the concrete ways in which the object has been used in the past, the practices to which it has been subjected. The cup from which I drink tea not only tells me, with its external appearance (to the sight, to the touch), that is a cup, but thanks to its chipping and wear it also communicates to me that it is an object inherited from earlier generations, and therefore ‘sought-after’, whether in the sense that it has been purchased at a specialized shop or market stall, or in the sense that it has been lovingly protected against the risk – to which all old things are subject – of being thrown away. Moreover, the cup also embodies innumerable experiences preceding the old aunt from whom I inherited it, her personal habits and my need to remember her since she passed away. It incorporates the experiences of those who have used teacups over the centuries. 3
  4. 4. A teacup is after all nothing but a receptacle for a beverage (its ‘function’ as a tool). Yet almost everyone in the Western world would recognize it as a teacup. Its appearance not only conveys its function (a receptacle for drinking) but also the specific way in which this function has been interpreted in the course of history. A teacup should be, for example, sufficiently small to suit the practices of tea drinking habits, and it should have a handle fashioned in such a way that one can hold the cup without burning oneself. Half-litre teacups are not common, although there are litre glasses for beer. That a person does not drink half a litre of tea on a single occasion, while she or he can drink a litre of beer, does not mirror some ‘function’ or any specific need. Rather, it is the expression of norms and social conventions that have crystallized over time through common practices and have become solidified, ‘institutionalized’, in the objects and technologies that one uses. Every object, in that it is an exemplar of a certain type of object (a teacup, a beer glass), also conveys the history of the social uses that are embodied in that type. Objects therefore convey (more or less well) not only functions, but also history, both their ontogenesis (their history as a particular thing), and phylogenesis (the history of the type of object of which they are specimens). Indeed, the "function" is nothing other than the result of the intersection between the ontogenetic and phylogenetic determinations that have made the object what it is. By incorporating traces of the uses to which an object has been put in the past, every object in a certain sense ‘exhibits’ its biography in public. It becomes a social subject. The first to argue that it is appropriate to extend the concept of biography to inanimate things was Igor Kopytoff, in an essay in the book The Social Life of Things (Appadurai 1986, 64-91). Kopytoff showed that, exactly as human life is never complete until the end comes, neither is the existence of a thing. The history of an object’s vicissitudes assumes all the characteristics of a life history, a biography. All this, namely the idea that a thing possesses a biography and is able to exhibit it, at least partly, through its external appearance, has an important consequence in the world of design. It precludes the idea that the meanings of things can be determined once and for all by their designer. The aim of replacing the instructions booklet with the form is inconsistent. The meaning of a thing is not designed by anybody, but springs from the multiplicity of facts and events that constitute its biography. Objects are not made of inanimate matter so that, once they leave the hands of their designers or producers, they present themselves to their users always with the same appearance. As they traverse the world, they interact with their array of 4
  5. 5. users and accumulate traces of these interactions. Thus objects, in analogy with human beings, little by little construct individual biographies that leave an imprint on the interactions of those objects with the human world. This is why the design of an object is never, nor could ever be, confined to the designer’s hands alone. The designer is only one of the many actors who leave their imprint on the product. And when designers delude themselves that they are the only true protagonists, the demiurges of a certain object, they fail in their task. Awareness of the social life of things is important to counteract a certain delusion of omnipotence from which designers sometimes suffer. Communicating objects I now return to the main topic and take a step forward. When one speaks of ‘communication’, the reference is not usually to the relationship between a person and an inanimate thing, but to person-to-person communication, that is, between two or more subjects endowed with consciousness and the ability to produce meanings. This is the basic form of communication – communication in a strict sense. What, one might ask, have objects got to do with interpersonal communication? Of course they have to do with it because they are means of mediated communication, and are therefore media. The point is that not only the media as often understood (television, the computer) are means of communication. Instead, all technologies, all three-dimensional objects, are by their very nature active instruments of communication, and in particular of non-verbal communication. The underlying sense of this statement becomes apparent, when one observes the communicative function of objects from a historical-social perspective. This shows, in fact, the specificity of the current state with respect to previous ages. That objects are, in the broad sense, instruments of non-verbal communication pertains to their very nature as artefacts or natural products, and to our ability to infer effects from causal relations. An object is therefore always the sign of its creator, and it is often a means to communicate – usually indexically but also symbolically – individual or social characteristics of its possessors. The crown denotes the king, the oriental carpet testifies to the merchant’s opulence and travels, the parasol may indicate that its owner is female, a heart-rate monitor transforms a jogger into an athlete in training. Indeed, in more general terms, objects can be conceived as elements in linguistic or semiotic systems (Barthes 1964). 5
  6. 6. However, the advent of modern society has given a new imprint and different importance to this ancient phenomenon. Modern society has changed the social conditions in which the encounter with the Other, and therefore interpersonal communication, takes place. And the role performed in such communication by material objects has accordingly changed. What has happened in the modernization of society? Put extremely briefly, the capacity of social stratification to organize and order the daily lives of people, and to confer distinct identities upon them, has greatly weakened. During the twentieth century, the constant increase in the flexibility of social structure, and therefore in social mobility, generated widespread uncertainty about the positions of others. Urbanization and population growth in general, even in rural villages, meant that people much more frequently encountered strangers in their everyday lives (the postman, the shop assistant, and the passer-by) whose behaviour was in principle unpredictable. Such uncertainty required new and more agile means with which to identify people, and instruments with which to facilitate the typification process on which social relations are based. These served not only to identify and typify the Other but also to construct the Self, the personal social identity. Objects have thus become, besides other non-verbal signs (such as posture, body language, accent, etc.), fundamental tools of communication, in that they signal much more rapidly and reliably than words the status and other important features of people (Leonini 1984). I am referring, obviously, to clothes, but also to accessories, vehicles, home furnishings, and in general all objects of daily use. Whereas people would once slake their thirst by drinking from just one receptacle – a wooden bowl or a glass according to social status – today many use half a dozen. This is not explained by functional distinctions alone (after all, drinking tea is not that different from drinking water), nor by the average growth of the population’s wealth and its capacity for consumption. Laying the table with one glass per person or with two, pouring brandy into a snifter or into a jam jar, is to communicate to others (actually or potentially present) information about oneself: one’s identity, style, tastes, and position in the world. The system of industrial production has responded by multiplying the types of objects available to the consumer to satisfy a particular need. With the advent of modern urban society, consumers have an increasing need to communicate their identities rapidly and overtly, and therefore to surround themselves with things able to communicate when there is no time or occasion to communicate verbally. Modern urban society requires, to an 6
  7. 7. unprecedented extent, a system of signs sufficiently diversified so that it can act in the stead of the language used in interpersonal communication. Industrial production, with its proliferation of models, series and variants, responds exactly to this social need – an aspect that seems to have escaped Baudrillard’s notice (1968). Unlike in pre-modern societies, the system of interpersonal communication to which objects today belong is extremely complex, for it is the instrument with which roles, positions, hierarchies, forms, and frames of interaction are not simply exhibited, as happened in the past, but also negotiated and defined, and therefore constantly constructed as individuals interact with others in the contingent social situation. And not only roles and positions, but also such personal characteristics as credibility, professional ability, types of habitus (likes and dislikes), as well as forms of shared culture such as daily rituals or symbolic universes. All the three-dimensional objects in our world that are in some way used by human beings inevitably act as media of social communication in everyday life. Jochen Gros called this set of tasks the domain of the “symbolic functions” performed by objects (Steffen 2000, 82) in order to distinguish them from both the practical functions and the capacity of objects to furnish their users with clues as to their characteristics and possibilities. The increasing importance acquired in industrialized society by the symbolic functions of product language, compared with the other functions, also has consequences for the role of the designer today. The objects of industrial production, and therefore the design objects that constitute a subset of them, are distinct from pre-industrial objects not only, and perhaps not even primarily, because they are mass-produced but also because they are intended to meet a new type of need – the need to manage the interaction with the Other in a social environment that is fluid, unstructured, mutable and complex or, to use the fashionable term, “liquid” (Bauman 2000). In this situation, the balance between material needs (slaking one's thirst) and immaterial or symbolic needs (slaking one's thirst in a specific way that communicates a particular social type) is clearly tipped towards the latter. If this is true, then also the social role that designers perform with their profession has changed. Designers are no longer confronted with the somewhat banal task of rendering the object’s use ‘natural’ for the user. They are also faced with the task of making the object useful as an instrument of social communication. Here ‘useful’ means usable in the various situations of everyday life, and therefore malleable, interpretable, and able to convey the meanings desired by the consumer. Designing consists among other things, and in many cases 7
  8. 8. does so principally, of inventing new ways for human beings to communicate. Designing makes the world ‘better’ because it equips people with new tools to communicate with others in a world where communication has become the individual’s main source of identity, satisfaction, and self-realization. The hydraulic model of communication I now turn to my second topic. The particular role performed by product design in interpersonal communication can be adequately explained if we discard the naive view of communication as the ‘transmitting’, or the ‘sharing’, of ideas among people and adopt a model better able to take account of the multiplicity and variety of forms of human communication. What, then, does ‘communicating’ actually mean? In this case, too, one must deal with a ‘scientific commonsense’ which is difficult to dispel. Frequently used to describe communication is the model of a message sent by an addresser and received by an addressee. The model is based on examples of sound that travels along a telephone line or a datum that transits from computer to computer. When describing this model, reference is very often made to Roman Jakobson’s (1960) well-known scheme: the addresser reaches the addressee with a message sent through a channel and, thanks to its conformity with the rules of a code, transmits certain content. It is assumed that there is an open physical channel between the addresser and the addressee, a contact that has enabled transfer a message from one to the other. The meaning conveyed by the message is not in question, because the presumption is that it pertains to the message itself and is therefore, in principle, the same for the addresser and the addressee. Correct encoding and decoding procedures allow both parties to access the authentic meaning of the message, even though it is filtered by the subjectivity and the culture of each. Therefore, subsequent to the transmission of the message, addresser and addressee share (notwithstanding their individual and cultural differences) the same mental state, the same idea, the same meaning. Jakobson’s scheme, like so many subsequent theories based on it, is an authoritative example of what Umberto Eco (1975, 51) has called the ‘hydraulic model’ of communication, and whose first formulation is usually attributed to Shannon and Weaver (1949; see Jakobson 1961). This is a very natural view of communication, but precisely for this reason it is also naïve. In its standard formulation, it envisages a content that passes from the addresser to the 8
  9. 9. addressee, without considering the problematic nature of this ‘passage’. How does an idea, an item of information, an image, pass from one mind to another? What real channel is opened between two communicating subjects? The naivety of the natural attitude consists, in this case, in a failure to address these questions, which concern a fundamental issue: the data of consciousness are given to each single mind in its singularity and cannot be ‘transferred’ to another mind; nor can they be ‘shared’ among two or more minds (see also Sperber and Wilson 1986, 1; Krippendorff 2006, 56). What is given to me ‘in flesh and blood’ can only be ‘presentified’ by those to whom I speak. There may be an analogy between their presentification and my givenness, but there is never identity. All the more so because the others have a standpoint in the world different from mine (but for many other reasons as well). Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology highlighted this aspect. Although it was not concerned with the issue of communication, it showed that it is not possible, in principle, to access the consciousness of others, and that only on this basis is it possible to address correctly the question of how, in fact, each subject is able to deal with others – to the point of producing the astonishing event that is the construction of a shared vision of the surrounding world (see Husserl 1963, fifth Cartesian Meditation). Hence it is necessary to explore other avenues to move beyond the ingenuous view of communicating. In the past forty years, in semiotics and linguistics flourished a conception of communication that, though not originating from phenomenology, furnishes a useful conceptual tool for my purposes here. This is a conception of communication able to give a better account than others of the role performed by ‘functional’ objects, by things and technologies, in communication among human beings. It is the inferential model of communication, and in particular developments brought to it by relevance theory (Lewis 1969; Sperber and Wilson 1986; Grice 1989). This theory, treated from a phenomenological perspective, aids understanding how three-dimensional objects enter interpersonal communication. Signification The starting point of a phenomenological theory of communication is the notion that communication is only possible because human beings are capable of producing signification. Semiologists define ‘signification’ as the act that unites a signifier with a signified – an expression with a certain content – the outcome being what we call a ‘sign’ (Barthes 1964, § II.4). It is therefore the act (or process) through which actual experience (very often) 9
  10. 10. transcends itself and functions as a sign of something other: that little hole in the snow is not only a hole but becomes for me an imprint, an index that a fox may have passed by. In other words, signification is the source of meanings, the act whereby they are formed. Or, even more generally, it is the moment when being suspends its causal bond with the surrounding world, distances itself from the relation of mere stimulus/response, and becomes able to interpret stimuli and react to them in a free and unexpected way. Being becomes an ‘intentional’ subjectivity. Signification creates sets of possibilities for action, and this distinguishes the human agency from mechanisms (Krippendorff 2006, 56): smoke is no longer something that irritates my eyes; it is also, and above all, something that signals the existence of a fire to me. Consider more closely the classic example of smoke as a sign of fire. This is not an act of communication in Grice’s sense. But neither is it a case of causal interaction with surrounding people. Let’s assume that we see the smoke coming out of the windows of the flat above ours. It is not actually the smoke that forces us out of the house. The smoke is relevant as a vehicle of a content that is something else: the burning. That is, in semiotic terms, the smoke is a sign of fire. The smoke does not force us out of the house until we have understood it as a vehicle of meanings, as a meaningful event. And this happens through an act of signification. Whereas when one burns oneself on a flame one immediately withdraws the hand, even before one understands what happened. I have dwelt on this example because it yields understanding a number of things. Firstly, it shows that besides causal interaction with the surrounding world a second possibility exists: one that occurs whenever a material event is perceived by someone as meaningful. Secondly, it shows that this second possibility – meaning – is the product of activity by someone, and is therefore an act performed by a subject. It is not the state of an object. Here again are the reasons for what I have called the social life of things. I argued above that meaning cannot be impressed once and for all upon an object by someone, not even by its designer. The ultimate reason for this is the fact that the meaning of an object exists only in the consciousness of someone who experiences it. And this someone continually changes. Meaning is the product of an act of the experiencing consciousness: the result of what in German would be more appropriately called a Sinngebung. As soon as we consider meaning, not in a linguistic sense, but in a sociological and pragmatic one, it proves to be not a property 10
  11. 11. of the object, of the material sign, but a property of the experience that someone has of it. Therefore it cannot in any way be fixed by the addresser, to be then ‘communicated’ (transmitted) to the addressee. Meaning is the product of the signification process performed by the recipient of a sign or a text. Even Grice's “utterer's meaning” (1989, 86) should be interpreted as the meaning of the particular recipient of a sign that is the announcer. It is not the object as such, in its materiality, that possesses a meaning (not the image, not the sound emitted) but the object as experienced, the object of a particular person’s experience: what Husserl (1976, §§ 88-90) called the noema. Communication as modification of a physical environment Now, if the capacity of the signification is a constitutive characteristic of intentional consciousness, it follows that the acts of signification and communication are not logically equivalent. They are not on the same level. It is possible to conceive signification without communication; it is not possible to conceive communication without signification. Communication that does not result in signification has failed; it is not communication at all, it is only a failed attempt to communicate. If a recipient is missing, so too is communication. This is because signification precedes communication and makes it possible. They are not phenomena of equivalent level, but one is a more general phenomenon on which the other is grounded. This is, to me, the fundamental theoretical key to understanding what happens when people communicate. The ability to produce meanings is a fundamental skill of human beings. The world we live in is not merely a world of things. Above all it is a world of meanings. One’s ability to communicate draws on this fundamental competence of signification to introduce into person- to-person relations – alongside processes of physical interaction – cognitively mediated interactions. If, in fact, one’s competence of signification enables each one to ‘interpret’ the surrounding environment – that is, to see beyond brute facts and grasp in them signs of something (the smoke for the fire) – then for all the others, for one’s potential interlocutors, a new possibility opens up: they can modify the surrounding environment in order to direct one’s act of interpretation to the construction of those meanings that they desire. It is thus possible, for example, to use smoke to send signals. Every social actor knows that she or he can influence the behaviour of others not only by materially influencing their bodily dispositions, but also by influencing the horizon of their 11
  12. 12. meanings through change in their physical environment. Hence, to communicate is not to transmit or to share pre-packaged meanings, but to act by changing the surrounding world in view of the recipient’s presumed ability to make sense of the new reality experienced. Communicating is a way to exploit the signification competence of others to one’s own advantage; or in other words, to the advantage of one’s need to induce certain behaviours (or mental states) in the addressee. As Sperber and Wilson put it: Communication is a process involving two information-processing devices. One device modifies the physical environment of the other. As a result, the second device constructs representations similar to representations already stored in the first device. Oral communication, for instance, is a modification by the speaker of the hearer’s acoustic environment, as a result of which the hearer entertains thoughts similar to the speaker’s own (Sperber and Wilson 1986, 1). It makes no sense to think that, together with the sound waves leaving the mouth of the speaker and reaching the ears of the hearer, there is something like ideas that follow the same trajectory and pass from the speaker’s mind to that of the hearer. No meaning can pass from one mind to another. The blots that you are reading are nothing but a minor transformation of your environment which I have made in the awareness that, thanks to the existence of a shared code, it would induce you to form mental representations similar to those that I want to arouse in you. Codes are no more than devices useful to standardize the physical environment and its modifications. As such, they facilitate the task of communication. But they too derive from the basic ability of human beings to construct meaning. To communicate is not to transmit messages, but to transform reality in which one lives, so that one’s interlocutor is able to produce acts of signification similar to those one desires: if one wants someone to pass the water at the table, one must modify the physical environment (by emitting sounds, by altering the position of one’s body or of objects: for example, by holding one’s glass out) so that the other will realize that one wants to drink. Relationship-centred design To conclude, I must briefly clarify how a phenomenological-inferential model of communication is better able than the hydraulic model to interpret the communicative function of objects in contemporary society. I will restrict myself to two considerations. 12
  13. 13. In our society, objects, as said, are valuable instruments for interpersonal communication. As a result, their design has become an activity that occupies a prime position, particularly among the activities of those who develop communication media for the collectivity. Defining the sensible appearance (the ‘form’) of an object is to define its communicative potential, and therefore to open one array of communicative possibilities while innumerable others are closed. Designing an object or a technology means making available to its users a device that enables them to communicate with each other. In this sense, the work of the designer can be well interpreted through the category of communication. But the hydraulic model is unable to explain this form of communication, because it presupposes the existence of a code shared by the user of a certain object and her or his social world, a code concerning precisely the meanings of objects. And this circumstance seems highly unlikely, especially in the case of complex technologies or branded items. The inferential model, by contrast, describes communication as the production and interpretation of clues by drawing on the shared experience of the surrounding environment, and this is much more compatible with the communicative use of things, which is practical rather than logical. As elements in experience of the surrounding environment (not only visual experience, but also tactile and corporeal in general), objects belong to the set of stimuli from which interpretation of the world springs. Their transformation (for example by creating a new car model, launching a new trend in fashion, etc.) contributes to the transformation of this latter, and therefore of the meaning that the surrounding reality has for people. In this resides the second feature that makes the phenomenological-inferential model more suitable. If one admits that communicating means altering the state of affairs in such a way as to arouse a desired reaction in the interlocutor, then it must be said that design is a very powerful means to alter the state of affairs. To design is to modify the world. By modifying the world, the designer changes not only the physical environment (the system of causal connections) but also the experience of people and therefore the processes of signification that they enact. Altering the physical environment arouses in the addressee, the consumer, new acts of signification. This also implies, however, that designing today is increasingly less the creation of meaningful objects (‘products’) and increasingly more the creation of states of affairs that are not rigid and closed in upon themselves, but open, available to the user, easy to use communicatively in the diverse situations through which life unfolds. To design is not to 13
  14. 14. produce meanings, but material situations that are potentially meaningful. And the responsibility for opening up such possibilities falls to a designer. It seems to me that on the basis of a phenomenological-inferential model, this role of the designer in contemporary society emerge with all its potency. The designer opens (and simultaneously closes) new possibilities for communication and, therefore, for the production of identity in contemporary society. As Lucius Burckhardt pointed out some decades ago, neither the object nor the human being is at the centre of the designer’s activity, but social relations: The discipline that I would want to represent teaches that at the centre is not the object, … ‘but the human being’, one often hears. False. The building blocks of the world are not human beings, nor things, but the invisible rules of social processes, be they called roles, relations, expectations of behaviour, or whatever else (Burckhardt 1970). References Appadurai Arjun (1986) (ed.), The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Barthes Roland (1964), Eléments de sémiologie, Seuil, Paris. Baudrillard Jean (1968), Le systeme des objets, Gallimard, Paris. Bauman Zygmunt (2000), Liquid modernity, Blackwell, Oxford. Burckhardt Lucius (1970), Design heisst Entwurf, nicht Gestalt!, in IDZ Berlin (Hrsg.), Design? Umwelt wird in Frage gestellt, Berlin. De Fusco Renato (2004), Il piacere dell’arte. Capire la pittura, la scultura, l’architettura e il design, Laterza, Roma-Bari. Eco Umberto (1975), Trattato di semiotica generale, Bompiani, Milano. Grice Paul (1989), Studies in the way of words, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (MA). Husserl Edmund (1963), Cartesianische Meditationen, Nijhoff, Den Haag. - (1976), Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Erstes Buch, Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie, Nijhoff, Den Haag. Jakobson Roman (1960), Closing statements: Linguistics and poetics, in Th.A. Sebeok (ed.), Style in language, John Wiley & Sons, New York, pp. 350-377. - (1961), Linguistics and communication theory, in The structure of language and its mathematical aspects. Proceedings of symposia in applied mathematics XII, American Mathematical Society, Providence (RI), pp. 245-252. Krippendorff Klaus (2006), The semantic turn: A new foundation for design, Taylor and Francis, Boca Raton (FL). Leonini Luisa (1984), The quest for identity: The role of objects in contemporary everyday life, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh. Lewis David (1969), Convention: A philosophical study, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (MA). Molotch Harvey (2003), Where stuff comes from: How toasters, toilets, cars, computers, and many other things come to be as they are, Routledge, London. 14
  15. 15. Munari Bruno (1971), Artista e designer, Laterza, Bari. Nielsen Jakob (1993), Usability engineering, Academic Press, Boston. Norman Donald (1988), The psychology of everyday things, Basic Books, New York. - (2004), Emotional design, Basic Books, New York. Steffen Dagmar (2000), Design als Produktsprache. Der “Offenbacher Ansatz” in Teorie und Praxis, Verlag Form, Frankfurt a.M. Shannon Claude E. and Weaver Warren (1949), The mathematical theory of communication, University of Illinois Press, Urbana (IL). Sperber Dan and Wilson Deirdre (1986), Relevance: Communication and cognition, Blackwell, Oxford. 15

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