So after a comment Jeff made today, I asked if designing for user experience (instead of functionality) is an inherently post-modern task. What does that mean?

Really it was Sarah talking about the analogue look of the machine that sparked the thought. Jeff remarked how that was a designer’s choice — that the designers could have used digital touch screens and such to make the product. And when we look at that choice — the rejection of ‘the best’ technology of the moment in favor of an older technology, that seems a distinctly post-modern choice to me.

Why?  Let’s switch to architecture a second. In the Chicago skyline, there are really tall, really gorgeous buildings with astounding artistic flourishes in the masonry – gorgeous little touches here and there and everywhere – a visual surprise in every corner.  And then you have the really tall, square, flat ones.The really tall flat (boring) ones are modernist.

Why?  Because the modern movement is typified by all these things that typify second-wave HCI — it’s very objectivist. Very functional. Very much about ‘optimizing’ (not just in function, but in cost). We have “figured it all out.” We have new materials (glass and steel) and those are ‘better’ than stone. In fact, because of glass and steel we can build much taller buildings much more safely — and much cheaper — if we just build straight up buildings with an equal amount of space on every floor, with every window being the same size, and with no additional costly flourishes on the facade. This is optimized for cost, space, ease of build, and for fitting the most real estate in the least amount of space. You can’t beat that efficiency (a modernist would say). It’s the height of perfection. In a strong modernist view, there are no better choices to make in the creation of skyscrapers anymore – because we have scientifically shown this is as good as it gets. We have “figured it all out.”

And post-modernism rejects that notion. This is like third wave HCI. It rejects optimization and instead privileges the human (subjective) experience. That’s why when Jeff commented that the designers could have gone with the super digital / modern high tech controls for the machine, the designers’ choice seemed very post-modern. For even if every piece of that machine is in fact optimized, still the semiotic expression of its choices through these older elements is not connoting optimized at all! In fact, it’s the opposite. The product semiotics of the piece (as the class showed) create a feeling of nostalgia for that post-WWII 1950s style — even in us, who have never lived in there!

So if you can sum up all of the post-modernism vs modernism debate in one broad stroke — and you can’t — this would be it: the rejection of the optimized way as the best and only way.   Because as Jeff would probably point out – who’s perspective is telling us this is “the best” way anyway? The bean counters who pay for skyscrapers? Who cares??  Or the engineers who easily prove this is the optimal way to get the most space in the least area? Or the most floors for the least weight? Who cares?? What does that have to do with style? What does that have to do with human experience?

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