Designed for the mind

22 Jul 2004|Christoper Ireland

We’ve been having an interesting interchange about when design crosses the line between “design” and “decor,” prompted by Microsoft’s new optical mouse. This may seem like semantics to some, but it’s a heady challenge to those of us who think daily about the role of design. For example, if design is used only to improve the aesthetics of a product–with no functional improvement at all–is it still design? Or is it simply decor (a less affluent cousin of marketing)? What if that aesthetic design causes the user to behave differently–does that mean its “design”? But what if users don’t behave consistently—what if some act differently and others don’t. What happened to the role of design?

Let’s make this real. I have a Philippe Stark designed flyswatter (Dr. Skud). It’s a normal fly swatter formed in plastic—no electronics, no fur trim, no big initials. It has a clever means of standing, but its ability to stand would not motivate me to display it anywhere in my house. After all, it’s a fly swatter. So why do I let this little device even see the light of day? Because Starck made it emotional. By embedding a face in the “swat” part, it became personable and cute. So I behave differently now—I’ve stopped thinking of my fly swatter as an ignoble accessory to life in a rundown trailer park.

What credit does design get for this behavioral change? I give it complete credit and think it’s worth paying extra for, but in our debate, others see it differently. They would argue that this is no different from Wheaties featuring Venus Williams on their box. Or Target offering towels in shocking pink with ribbon trim. Marketing or décor—not design.

I’m not sure this debate needs to be resolved. Design is probably too large a concept for any lines to be drawn around it, and we’re lucky to live in a time when such nuances even exist. So, I’ll continue to pay for emotional benefits and I’ll let others demand pure functional innovations. In the end, we’ll all probably end up happier.

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