Friday, 18 March 2011

What a Juicer Taught Me About Love

A reaction to Don Norman's "Emotional Design" book

Don Norman's goal in Emotional Design is to answer the question he puts as his subtitle: "Why we love (or hate) everyday things". Besides being a throw-back to his earlier (highly successful) book on design, the choice of the phrase "everyday things" suggests something of the breadth of his analysis.

In one section of the book he draws analogies between products and other things that surround us: views from our window, pieces of music, and even our spouses (for those of us that have them ^^). He is attempting to answer a most tricky question: what is it that separates products that have only immediate appeal and those that (like a favorite strain of music) remain compelling over a lifetime. To summarize the answer he takes from Khaslavsky and Shedroff: it is about seduction. And for as enigmatic as the notion of seduction and life-long appeal seems, they proposed the following (straightforward) process for an object to seduce:

  • Entice - it should be be beautiful: demand attention by transcending the ordinary
  • Go beyond the obvious - this extra-ordinary thing gives us questions about how and why it is so. these questions must have equally surprising answers
  • Appeal to Instinct - it should be instinctively respected, usually by being dangerous or powerful
  • Espouse Personal Goals - it should be the manifestation of what it is that you would like to be
  • Promise to help reach these goals - it promises to transform ordinary actions into extraordinary expressions of the attainment of these goals
  • Teach by Example - By embodying personal goals in an unexpected place or way, this object teaches you something deeper about these goals and can serve as a reminder to expect wonder in the everyday
  • Fulfill these goals and promises - By serving as a reminder and example of personal goals every day, this object helps you attain these goals and serves as a reminder of your progress towards them

In her poem "Siren Song", Margaret Atwood proposes that it is by saying
Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique
that a Siren seduces the wayward sailor. I would add to the above list that an object must express a "need" for you (the particular user). In their example of Philippe Starck's juicer (link), they insightfully point out how the object's dangerous look and unique method of juicing surprise, delight and intrigue. What they fail to point out is that this creates a barrier of entry which prevents strangers from using it.
When a friend sees this juicer in your kitchen, they are unlikely to use it on their own without your help. In this way the product "values" its relationship with you. By having a relationship with and knowing the product, only you can use it. You alone know how to handle it and you alone realize its true value. By presenting a barrier to interaction to the uninitiated and to those that don't value the object, it states its preference for those that "understand it" and thus gives you a sense of pride for being uniquely able to understand (and use) this symbolic object.

Don Normand does take the analysis further in this social direction: you prefer others to associate you with an object embodying your goals, and you like to use this object to explain your values and goals to others. It is this desire to associate yourself with these goals _through_ ownership of this object that makes you so compelled to own it and (upon owning it) to cherish it as a prized possession.

What I found so extraordinary about this analysis is its easy and equal applicability to products, places, and art. Certainly in analyzing the juicer, one can imagine how it explains Don's love of it. Not limited to quotidian objects, however, this analysis explains why music fanatics love the music that they do.
Let us consider death metal (for example). It is obviously very unique, standing out from other more common types of popular music. It has a certain dangerous aura arising not only from the music itself which is frightening and repulsive but also from its surrounding culture's affinity to drugs and violence. To true fans however, metal (many sub genres at least) represents a return to spiritual simplicity and an ability to embrace the emotional reality of life (however dark that may be). It's unpalatable nature is a statement that life isn't easily enjoyed but has order under the surface of unpleasant chaos. It takes time and dedication to appreciate metal, and thus it rewards those who take the time to understand it. It is easy to see how some can fall in love with metal!
The same analysis can be done for lovers of classical music, lovers of certain painters or even lovers of particular sculptures, buildings or mobile phones. Merely ask: to the viewer/user what is unique about this, what is its visceral response, what does it symbolize about life and the person that the user/viewer/listener wants to be, and how does it reward a deeper relationship?

If you are anywhere near as concerned with your love life as I am at the moment, then you will have started reading this essay in such a light long before this paragraph. For the rest of you: I suggest taking a glance back at that list above while contemplating your most recent crush. Please. Do it. I'll wait.

Have a fond smile on your face? Maybe it's a sardonic smile. But no matter how this relationship (if there even was one) turned out, hopefully you too see the truth in this list that struck me when I read it.

As a list that captures something interesting about the art of seduction and its applicability to product design it makes an interesting enough point for an essay but I was not quite satisfied with this. At the risk of becoming angsty and giving away too much of my personal problems, here were some of the questions that this list brought up in me:


Does this process establish love or infatuation or both or neither?
Because this form of seduction and attraction can be applied to objects as well as people, it is obviously infatuation: love must be a two-way street. A full discussion of this is _well_ outside the scope of this already lengthy essay, but I will say that this kind of infatuation, mutually shared, is in fact necessary (if not sufficient) for love. Love is comfort, company and resolve: difficult to have without finding your partner inspiring.

If this is a component of love, and can be applied to objects, does this mean that love is objectifying?
It is a very interesting question (and the one that I was originally writing this essay to answer). I believe that it is in equal measures objectifying and humanizing. It can be applied to objects, and in the most vulgar sense it awakes in us a desire for ownership. This desire to own the object of our infatuation is a potentially catastrophic form of objectification and is unfortunately visible in many people's attitudes towards marriage.
As the language used to describe this makes clear, however, it can be a powerfully anthropomorphic feeling as well: complicating our view of objects by prescribing human goals to them, and enriching our view of other people by establishing our desire to transform ourselves into them. This desire, to _become_ the other, actually helps to make them more human than they were before, even if it comes at the potential cost of projecting ourselves onto them. At the risk of straying too far into a different essay I was going to write, I feel that this reflects the necessary evolution of views we have of other people.
When you first encounter someone, they are an object devoid of all but the most basic humanity and life in your eyes. They are merely an obstacle or an aid on the way to getting something you want. Once you start talking to them, you begin to see their personality. At this stage you project yourself and the people you've met before onto this person, seeing them as a combination of your experiences and desires. As you get to know them, this view gets richer until your knowledge of them can no longer be contained in this limited view. Your idea of them then transforms into seeing them as the product of _their_ experiences and desires.
This is the process by which we go from an objectified to a humanized understanding of another, and while objectification can be harmful I believe that it is in some ways necessary.
Infatuation with an object as the symbol of an ideal does prevent humanizing it, and therefor can actually be a barrier (as much as a stepping stone) to a healthy relationship. So to answer the question more straightforwardly: love shouldn't be objectifying and shouldn't contain a sense of or desire for ownership, even though it sometimes does.

Should I avoid this kind of attraction?
Absolutely not! It is by surrounding ourselves with the objects, art and (yes) people that embody our goals and desired states that we establish and project our identity and that we work to become the people that we desire to be.

If this is infatuation and not love, can this form of attraction last?
As long as the personal goal underlying your attraction doesn't change, and as long as the thing being admired stays true to its promise of helping you realize and project that goal and its values, then the attraction too should last. If the goal is core to your personality (as desiring to be a better friend, or a more charitable person etc) than this kind of connection is likely to be one that lasts for a very long time indeed. If, however, the goal underlying your attraction is temporary or concrete (as desiring to speak a language more fluently or desiring to win a particular contest, etc) then the attraction too will be equally fleeting.

The Self Help Portion - Read Here for Trite Advise
I want to be seductive! How can I use these insights to be more attractive?
Be enticing, beautiful, surprising, mysterious and dangerous; espouse, embrace and embody worthy goals; promise to help those around you reach those goals, teach by example; fulfill your promises to help, and reward those who invest in you: with exclusivity, intimacy and love.

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