This idea has been developing in the back of my mind for a few months now and I’ve briefly alluded to it before. Nonetheless, it seems to warrant further exploration.
What if we measured design’s goodness in smiles brought to users – a concept I called “delight” in previous columns – instead of, say, profit or ownership. Ultimately, this is one side to the overarching question of “What should we design?” and it’s basis “What deserves to be in existence?”
Throughout school and my early career I was a very utilitarian designer, very minimal and very essential. There wasn’t much room for whimsy or self-possession in the design, it should be quiet and unobtrusive. In a perfect world there wouldn’t be anything but we would be able to complete any task we wanted. Since this was impossible, it was design’s job to get as close as possible. It was a Rams world moreso than an Eames one, and I say this in the philosophical sense more than the aesthetic one. The Eames couple made toys and had colourful windmills and fun, whereas Dieter was German and stark. It was a Japanese zen approach: the space should not be filled with things but people, and those people will mold the neutral space to their own preference. I still believe these things and will continue to fill my own world with these things, but my argument here is on behalf of the rest of the world.
Unlike physical sales where something is either sold or isn’t we have to extend the metaphor for smiles as a currency. We can think of debt as the opposite of money but anti-smiles are a more complex absence. There are three states: delight, neutral and frustration. The best designed things we marvel at, we delight in, the rest either elicits no response or actively gets in our way. Ideally, of course, we should be designing for the first, but a large majority of objects are the second: they exist and they serve – often well – our needs but we probably don’t really notice them in the positive sense either.
The reason I love this abstraction is it’s broad moral questions that relate humans to design. Questions that bring up, for only one example, things like guns. Not inherently bad and in fact smile granting when used in a range but when used against other people definitely rack up the anti-smile cost pretty quickly. Should they, then, exist as objects? There’d have to be a net balance of smiles gained v. smiles destroyed in every object that either justifies or damns it’s being. Granted, for most things it’d be obviously skewed: the existence of ice cream cones is something that – I’m assuming, at least – would be far closer to the delight end of the spectrum. A water bottle might not be an actively exciting thing, but nor are they actively destroying delight either. So then, there must be other, external factors to finally decide.
Usefulness has always been weighted heavily for me, as mentioned above, I’m an inherently practical person and an inherently practical designer. Water bottles, we can easily agree, are useful. The reductio ad absurdum being holding water in your cupped hands until you need a drink. This would be annoying at best and tragically difficult in reality. Driving and typing become impossible, as would basically everything else we do throughout the day. How many smiles do water bottles destroy? We could point to the life cycle analysis – the energy used to make them, the shipping costs, the stores that sell them, the re-usability, the recycling efficiency / landfill cost and so forth, but in the end we need a metric that correlates those things with humans’ actual lives and their delight level.
Now, this is all good in hypothetical thought. It’s good for imaginative philosophy in both design and humanist circles but in practice becomes impossibly complex to work out. Who’s to say there aren’t families living in landfills who’d delight in finding a good thrown out water bottle? What about the people in the town next to the landfill who anti-delight in seeing it grow closer to their house? Where do those things stack up and cancel out?
But maybe, just maybe, it’s another thing to think about when designing something. Not just cost analysis or profit margins, marketability or sustainability, something so simple as “Will this thing make more smiles than it breaks?”
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