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Being Human
Feeling Our Way in This New Millennium

by DK Holland

I drove back to my design studio in the Mission District to finish a mechanical for a product package. Using my Schaedler rule, I spaced type on the Bristol board on my drawing table, dialed a call on my plug-in telephone while I waited for the Best-Test two-coat rubber cement to dry. While I was using touch, smell, sight, hearing and intuition to do this, I was not conscious of how my senses informed my work. This kind of thinking was not yet on the radar in design. But now it is.

Giudice says, “Products are now developed within holistic systems—look at Apple. They are selling in the App Store, on iTunes. You are not buying a product on its own. You are buying into a relationship. Zappos is another good example. They are selling shoes they did not design. What you are buying is incredible customer service that just happens to be online. The customer controls the relationship much more than ever before.” This new relationship is cutting down on the need for real estate as well as packaging. And commerce is now being transacted daily in the privacy of our living rooms.

Liz Danzico, chair of the School of Visual Arts MFA interaction design program, says, “There are fewer borders between public and private. And therefore there may be a decreasing tolerance for inconsistency in commerce. User experience design (UXD, a subset of XD) has the opportunity to make the experience useful (meaningful) usable (intuitive) and delightful (joyful). Our consumer culture is becoming much more collaborative—we have access to reviews, have house shares, we barter for products, services and more. Designers can make all these systems more rewarding to use.”

Shedroff says to the designer, “You are a curator in a collaborative process that is going to trigger meaning, when you know the triggers. We kick the students’ butts to the curb and get them to connect to the ultimate user. They need to meet the customer. We push students to experience things deeply, to immerse themselves in experience: to notice which experiences are so routine, they don’t even register, like brushing your teeth. To realize how people transition from one place to another.”

People are reticent to face reality when it threatens their worldview. There’s a tricky balance individuals must achieve that allows them to become healthy, productive members of society. America has been branded as a nation of over-consumers. Shedroff says, “When people try to fill the voids in their lives with ‘stuff,’ it may help our economy in the short term but may not be so helpful to our society in the long term. I want designers to consider a wider range of options when they create meaningful experiences for people, experiences that will satisfy them on deeper levels.” So they still spend their money, but on experiences, not necessarily products. Certainly, this would be one antidote to the rampant consumerism gobbling up our natural resources while keeping the economy afloat. Shedroff implores, “We need a new business model. The world needs a lot of new business models. And XD can be an effective tool within these models, to help reshape our economy.”

Shedroff reminds us that, playing on the fear of change, lobbies have historically protected the status quo. “RCA tried to get Congress to deny approval for FM radio; they were protecting their business interests in AM.” Since relevance drives all markets Shedroff adds, “Had we tried to protect dying industries we would never have gotten to electronics which, of course, led to high technology: the buggy whip, whale oil, petticoats and corset businesses all go unmissed. Expectation and a positive sense of possibility lead us to open the doors for change. A lot of young people have this spirit. Experience design can help galvanize it. It’s the innovators who shall inherit the earth.”

The exploration of one’s inner feelings was seen as demeaning until the early part of the twentieth century when Freud’s theories became popularized in the West. Not coincidentally that was around the time Freud’s American nephew, Edward Bernays, created the field of public relations. Basing it on the manipulation of the mass unconscious, he employed Freud’s theory that deep inside us all are instinctual, uncontrollable, animalistic forces. Bernays’s clients included John D. Rockefeller, Procter & Gamble, the NAACP, Cosmopolitan magazine and the CIA.4

In 1929 Bernays was hired by the tobacco industry to get women to smoke—a social taboo that was affecting the industry’s growth. The cigarette looked like a penis, Bernays speculated and therefore represented suppressed oral eroticism and so smoking in public would symbolize independence in the women’s subconscious. Capitalizing on the women’s movement he enlisted “suffragettes” to smoke “torches of freedom” while marching in an Easter Day parade in New York City and the sale of cigarettes to women shot up. Smoking and freedom was in fact a totally irrational connection but it worked. In the 1960s the now contrite Bernays pleaded ignorance for his actions: Sorry officer, I didn’t know the gun was loaded.

Later he used his talents to help his manufacturing clients promote planned obsolescence, and helped to manipulate society to devolve from a “needs to a desires” culture in order to stimulate the economy through over-consumerism. This massive shift contributed to the growth of the field of advertising.

In an effort to get his client President Herbert Hoover reelected, Bernays formed a non-partisan fact-finding committee, which sought to fool the public by publishing polls showing an overwhelming victory for the Republican Hoover against his Democratic rival Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When FDR came into office he brought in the New Deal, and the belief that the average man, if informed and educated, could make up his own mind. This point of view has remained in conflict with big business ever since. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.