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In a world that has become so saturated with commodified signs that they have begun to lose meaning, sometimes it’s best to slap together a bunch of stock footage and just see what happens.

 

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Just stumbled across this really interesting design yesterday, and thought I would share:

 

This design implies all sorts of really interesting lenses for critique: the hacking and reappropriation of commercial artifacts, commodification of government, civil liberties in a modern-day on-demand society, and even the notion that receipts are ridiculously wasteful (as anyone who has ever filled a prescription at CVS is no doubt aware).

 

Bonus: DRM Chair, a piece of furniture that self-destructs after 8 uses (listen for the clicks in the background!)

 

This post is kind of in response to Roy’s “Not Functionality” post. He asked why functionality is the go-to standard to measure a device’s success, and posited that it was in large part due to ignorance of context – what Jeff calls the Artworld. That is, we can’t critique something we don’t know anything about.

I definitely agree with that point of view; however, while reading Roy’s post something else occurred to me. Ignorance is definitely an obstacle to critiquing beyond an object’s functionality, but I believe we’ve also been trained over time to measure products by their functionality. I’m talking about full-on “Sit, dog,” style training. Ring-the-bell-and-we’ll-start-drooling style training (I’ve got more analogies lined up, if need be).

Consider how products’ most frequently comapred – with a feature checklist. “We’ve got more RAM! And a stylus! And a 400 megapixel camera! And that device over there doesn’t! Nyah nyah nyah!” I think this is such a pervasive technique that many people have come to understand this standard as the only meaningful way to measure a product.

I’ve been trying to decide on buying a new Windows machine, and it’s been a maddening experience. On the one hand, people selling the computers describe them in terms like I previously described – processing speed, RAM, hard drive capacity, available add ons, …etc. And yet, when I describe to those same people how I’ll be using the computer it’s a more qualitative narrative. “I’m working on this project and I need to be able to use these other technologies. I also bike everywhere, so I need something that can survive that sort of lifestyle…,” and so on. There’s a big gap between the two narratives!

Amazon is one of the biggest exemplars of the “functionality first” approach. It’s embodied in the actual layout of the website – products are presented in a grid to allow for the most careful comparisons of all the data points.

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DO IT

But what if Amazon and other retailers could find a way to bridge this gap and leverage user narratives as the primary means of selling a product? Maybe it could be built out of the existing user review system – and it only takes one glance at a product’s Amazon review page to see individuals are willing to spend time discussing products’ impacts on their lives.

What if the Amazon user experience was a story? What if it were a ’20 Questions’ style conversation with an intelligent recommendation system? What other form could a story-based shopping experience take?

A story to make a sale – storyselling (it’s a play on storytelling…get it?).

P.S. – I ended my post with the title. THIS POST IS A CIRCLE.

College Humor presents this shocking four-minute exposé of the engagement ring scam. To think what engagements could have been…

So on recommendation from many people in our cohort, I went and saw the Lego Movie this past weekend. I really enjoyed the movie, but I couldn’t help but observe that the very idea of the Lego Movie itself represents a form of commodified imagination. Almost all of the other franchises referenced in the movie: Batman, The Avengers, Harry Potter, are represented as Lego sets you can buy commercially. And one can almost certainly correlate Lego’s continued success with its ever-increasing line of playsets, particularly as they have been able to leverage movie tie-ins and popular culture. This expansion has also moved into mediums beyond the toys themselves, into the popular Lego video game series and yes, even the Lego movie (which already has a sequel planned for May of next year).

In addition, with this commodification comes new cultural implications for play, particularly for young children. For the past few years, Lego, like many other toy companies, have been struggling with “capturing” the girls toy market. A recent resurfacing of a popular 1980s ad has been making the rounds online:

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Notice the gender-neutral approach to body copy of the ad, the colors of the pieces, and even subtly suggested in the attire of the little girl represented. Why is this relevant? Well, one writer for a progressive women’s blog tracked down the original girl in the ad, Rachel Giordano, and asked her to recreate it for the modern age, with a modern Lego set “targeted” for girls:

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The set pictured with Ms. Giordano, The Heartlake News Van, is described as follows:

Break the big story of the world’s best cake with the Heartlake News Van! Find the cake and film it with the camera and then climb into the editing suite and get it ready for broadcast. Get Emma ready at the makeup table so she looks her best for the camera. Sit her at the news desk as Andrew films her talking about the cake story and then present the weather to the viewers.

While I’m certainly not qualified to speak about feminism in any sort of depth, it seems to me that there is a clear gender binary inherent in this set; one that not only attempts to reinforce stereotypical gender roles, but also commodifies that binary in the Lego “set” itself. Ms. Giordano also seems to be uncomfortable with this particular “evolution” of the sets:

LEGOs [in 1981] were ‘Universal Building Sets’ and that’s exactly what they were…for boys and girls. Toys are supposed to foster creativity. But nowadays, it seems that a lot more toys already have messages built into them before a child even opens the pink or blue package. In 1981, LEGOs were simple and gender-neutral, and the creativity of the child produced the message. In 2014, it’s the reverse: the toy delivers a message to the child, and this message is weirdly about gender.

I’d be interested in hearing from others who are more informed in this regard as to the “message” that is being conveyed, the critical approach could be beneficial here.

Does this mean that Lego has abandoned its own message professed in the movie: that master builders are the true “heros,” reappropriating collections into their own unique creations? I think even Lego as a company is at odds here: the main character, Emmet, undergoes a series of oscillations of character: from mere conformist, to amateur builder, to teaching others the value of following instructions, to appropriation and improvisation by the end of the movie. I feel that it is representative of the companies’ own feelings towards their product: as a catalyst for creativity, but also as a Business. I feel that it’s not all doom and gloom, however: these other recent ads from Lego show that there is still hope for imagination and wonder.

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Angélica’s “The designs don’t exist…O_o” post is a good one, but a few words in particular stood out to me. I’m going to focus my entire post on the phrase that caught my attention, which, to be honest, doesn’t relate to the rest of her post at all. For some reason it fired a trigger in my brain; make sure to go read her post for her separate thoughts. Here’s the quote I’d like to discuss:

“…because at the end of the day, products sell (ughhh).”

My reaction to the last three words, or rather my lack of reaction, is what piqued my curiosity. At first read, I immediately agreed with the sentiment expressed – there’s something…distasteful about selling products. I carried right on to the end of the post, but something about that quote stuck in my mind.

It makes so much sense to me, that there’s something inherently nasty about the “market.” Our entire discussion last Thursday was predicated on the idea that the market/profit driven process is flawed in some way. If only we could design free of the pressures of the profit, we could unfetter our imagination of notions of commodification.

Why do we think this way about money? More importantly, why do I think this way about money?

Evidence of humans using items as a standard currency can be found dating back over 10,000 years. Coins were first minted around 700 B.C. in Lydia, India, & China (they all started doing it around the same time and separately). The Chinese first printed paper money in the 11th century. So, ‘currency exchanged for goods’ sure as hell is a persistent system.

And yet in our modern society, few ideas are more maligned – the acquisition of wealth is driven only by greed and the basest of desires. Many would describe the über-rich Wall Street Banker archetype as the ultimate arch-villain of our modern era.

Actually, there’s an easy answer to my question: thousands of years of abuse of monetary systems have created systematic distrust in the notion of currency and in those who make those systems their life’s focus. 

And yet nearly all of us are engaged in serious efforts to jump headfirst into this world of commodity and profit as professional UX designers & researchers. Am I required to swallow my discomfort and push my doubts aside about the very system that will support me and those I love for the rest of my life?

I think no. To me, the vilification of money is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, the tail wagging the dog, a few bad apples spoiling the bunch…(I’ve got more). Like, an iceberg we only see the most extreme end exposed above the water (told you I had more).

Yes, there are evil people with way too much money. Yes, our glorification of money and capitalism is a fucked up lens through which to view the world.

No, we don’t have to let ourselves subscribe to that worldview. This is what I choose to do, and I hope you will too. There is another way to think about money.

The things we will design will feed the coffers of giant corporations. But that ignores everything that happens between you designing something and the profits going to the bank.

Somewhere in there, a real live person decided to spend her dollars on your design. Her dollars didn’t appear out of thin air before she handed them to the cash register. They were earned at the office, on the delivery run, on eBay. And she only has so many dollars left – just as money doesn’t appear from nowhere, it also isn’t an infinite resource. Her decision to spend her monies on your design is a serious one. It may have been quick, and perhaps not well thought through, but the decision to purchase will have implications that will ripple through her life for days, weeks, perhaps years. And as it affects her, it also affects the purchased item and the system that created that item. Her purchase is like a stamp of approval. In a way, her purchase is a small piece of influence.

Just as “money is power” in large quantities, it is power in small amounts too. Small power, but power nonetheless. Don’t discount the small power those for whom you design will have.

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Nathan’s post on Coke machines got me thinking about food. Food, at least in the fast food sense, seems to be in the commodified imagination realm. It’s main purpose, as stated in its name, is to be fast, convenient, and appetizing enough to want to eat. I think its safe to say fast food has easily achieved each of these goals. As a society, we definitely want fast food to be a part of our lives even though, on the surface at least, it’s just about the most revolting thing around.

In the context of other commodified products, it is easy to call producers out on their shit. Have a [thing] that isn’t working? Take it back. Buy [another thing] that broke immediately? Buy one of their competitors. Affecting change here is comparatively easy compared to other commodified products.

Fast food presents a challenge that, perhaps, can be seen in the digital realm as well. To affect change, however, would mean admitting that we have a problem, that we have an addiction. That we’ve gone all this time eating this terrible food, believing whatever we’d want to believe while scarfing it down. We’d also have to admit to being wrong and not just “different.” This is a lot easier when our physical bodies, our pride, are not on the line and when we can decide that the utility of getting something done is more important than being the one who got it right (imagine if Sony stuck to Betamax or Microsoft to HD DVD).  I think, just as we are addicted to unhealthy food, we are also addicted to social media, video games or the like.

Even the justifications are the same: I have to eat, don’t I? And, I have to get on Facebook to keep up with what’s going around the cohort! But, what other kind of food that is as convenient? And, it’s where all of my notifications are!

It would be interesting to see if there is a framework that could affect change here. More interesting if a digital framework could inform the culinary.

Jordan’s last question in his post about Samsung and aesthetics looked ripe for a blog post:

Should we consider coping [sic] a part of an OS’s functionality or aesthetic as counterfeit?

The advent of digital technologies, capable of making perfect, lossless copies of any digital medium, have allowed the unprecedented sharing of information across a wide variety of mediums and platforms. But with this technology comes a caveat; with one copy essentially being indistinguishable from the next, tracing the provenance or origins of a product or idea becomes exceedingly difficult. So how do we determine the aesthetic value of something if it is a copy, or potentially even counterfeit?

I feel that before we dive into the aesthetics qualities of copies, we first need to separate the notion of copies versus counterfeits. I think Jordan hints at this with the textbook definition he  provides:

Counterfeit: ”made in imitation of something else with intent to deceive” (emphasis added)

The notion of intent in my mind drives these two terms down different paths. Counterfeiting actually has many parallels to the research I’m doing for my capstone on Dark Patterns; it involves the leveraging of practiced skills and techniques (or patterns) in order to take advantage of someone else for personal gain. Both Dark Patterns and counterfeit goods rely on the superior value of the imitated experience or product; by manipulating users’ expectations on what they think should happen, or what consumers think an authentic Coach purse or pair of Air Jordan’s should look like, the intent of these designers is made clear.

So does this make counterfeiting aesthetic? I think the application of designerly intent, even in the service of making counterfeits, is aesthetic: it reflects upon itself as an (approximate) experience of the authentic artifact, stages meaning as a “knockoff” through its relative quality (or lack thereof), and situates itself politically as a source of economic loss and legal prosecution.

Though counterfeiting is a negative application of these aesthetic qualities, that hasn’t stopped others from responding to it with designs in kind. My favorite recent example was from Saddleback Leather’s CEO, who uploaded a video detailing how to knock of his bags.

 

As he goes through each stage of the process, detailing where counterfeiters can cut corners in materials and construction, he simultaneously is also making an argument for the quality of his own process. This is in my mind how counterfeiting can be used to better understand aesthetics of authentic products.

A couple of disclaimers/bias notices up front:

  • Bob Dylan is one of my all-time favorite musicians – if I was trapped on a desert island for eternity his discography would be the soundtrack for that eternity.
  • I do also really like the commercial I’ll be discussing, as well as the Chrysler 200. It’s a classy, well-built vehicle.

Now, watch this:

Ever since I first saw it, this ad has been driving me crazy for one reason – it is an excellent example of an effective Predispositions/Research/Insights argument based on the Principles format.

Right out of the gates, we get a predisposition to end all predispositions. “Is there anything more American than America?” Predispositions are meant to be something you agree with and understand easily. Dylan’s question is so logically circular that you can’t hope to think of an alternative answer. There isn’t anything more American than America, because America is American. BOOM.

And it’s clear Dylan knows this is the king of all predispositions, because he doesn’t bother with anymore assumptions and jumps right into his research and insights. In fact, the rest of the commercial is his research and insights – as a purely persuasive argument, he doesn’t need the back half of PRInCiPleS (or does he? Comment and tell me what you think!).

Dylan begins listing his claims: “You can’t import original. You can’t fake true cool. You can’t duplicate legacy. Because what Detroit created…became an inspiration to the rest of the world.” As pure text, these sound unfounded at best, hubristic at worse. However, the commercial’s visuals act as the “research” in this example.

“You can’t import original.” Bob Dylan himself, Marilyn Monroe, and Dr. J flash across the screen.

“You can’t fake true cool.” James Dean, Harleys, and a tattoo of Rosie the Riveter.

“You can’t duplicate legacy.” The tattoo switches to a real poster of Rosie the Riveter, and then fades to Dylan decending in an old-timey elevator.

“Because what Detroit created was a first, and became an inspiration to the rest of the world.” Early 20th century racing footage plays, and transitions to an “AUTOBAHN” sign.

Frankly, I could do this for every line in the rest of the commercial. Every claim Dylan makes is directly supported with visual evidence. And even the subjects themselves reinforce the initial answer to Dylan’s initial question about America – many of the references and individuals would only be recognizable to an American audience.

This is a fascinating comparison to me. Clearly, the commercial’s intent is to sell Chryslers. And yet, it fits so nicely into a framework of design thinking and argument. Perhaps designers should think twice before poo-pooing the marketer’s job.

On another note – grad school has ruined my ability to watch TV.

While I agree with the general consensus that the Desiderata reading seems to be the most palatable view of design, I can’t shake this feeling that I’m not entirely comfortable with it. If anyone can tease out a bit more to this, please do so.

Originally in my notes I’d decried this sense I’d been getting of overlooking marginalized individuals. I don’t think that desiderata was necessarily (or even has to be) aimed in this way, this supposition that user’s needs are somehow not what we should be designing for, or that the designer needs to tease out secret hidden desires… Hell, there are tons of people where simple basic need IS the problem, and the design work comes into play (i’d assume) in understanding what systems are in place that are denying them that need, and subverting or establishing a new system.

I don’t really want to keeping harping on this ‘Consumerist! Capitalist!’ thing which has cropped up in half of my posts here, but I guess that the idea of desiderata to me seems to come from this idea that designers will be working within a company setting, or on products. Or that in order to create “the next big thing”, we need to take a deeper look beyond what people simply say they want and discover what they really do. (And of course this gets into the whole ‘designers knowing better than the user’ thing, but that’s been talked about a bit more already).

And I think that’s me just forcing that perspective onto the paper a bit. I think Nelson and Stolterman are a bit more closely concerned with a careful design of what values we *want* the future to hold, ala Dunne and Raby. Which overall I really agree with. But I guess my point is more – although yes, in order to design for the future we need to get at underlying desires and imagined futures, there are simply some issues for which the “need” is right there in front of us, and really *is* the main issue. Now maybe dealing with this ‘need’ will have to take into account the desiderata of the other players involved?

A deeper and much better critique I think is the way Jeff framed it this afternoon – Nelson and Stolterman are directly prescribing *how design should be done*. Even if I think they’re right on the money for a whole slew of design thinking, even in their wide net, they’re still limiting what design is or can be.