Design’s three ways of working?

Friday, August 10th, 2007

In my book, Visual Communication: From Theory to Practice” (what? I’m not allowed to plug that?) I talk about how design operates at two levels: the aesthetic, and the affective/effective, and that too often we critique design as if it is purely an aesthetic discipline.

There’s an interesting interview with Jakob Nielsen, the web usability ‘guru’ over at The Guardian that’s well worth a read.

My eye was caught by this line:

“all designs work in three main ways: visceral, behavioural and reflective.”

In short, what does it look like, what does it make you do, and what does it say about the person/company? (Odd that he doesn’t include ‘usability’ in there…)

Basically the same as what I said except, usefully, split in to three related but different issues.
I’ve long believed that there is a relationship between these areas but it isn’t equal. Take pizza flyers: they look awful but they tell you all you need to know about the product and the company (fast, cheap, predictable experience) and they make it possible to act. In Nielsen’s terms, high scores in two areas overcome the low score in the third. Except that, as I pointed out a while back, the low aesthetic value of pizza flyer design reinforces the other two points – if they were ‘well designed’ they’d make the product and the company too mysterious, too much of a gamble.

Too much design is aimed at the first area, the visceral, in the mistaken belief that it will overcome problems in the other areas, particularly the reflective. (Got a bad image? Just come up with a fancy new logo!) Well maybe that’s true – we do indeed buy things for their looks irrespective of the reputation of the manufacturer, which iself hints at a missing piece of the equation.

I think what Nielsen’s categories miss out is what’s included implicitly in mine: any analysis of design has to include whether the design contributes to, or takes away from, the world. In other words, design cannot be defined without an ethical or ecological analysis.

How could we term that? ‘Impactive’? ‘Impactual?’ Are they even words? Well let’s make it one until we come up with a better one.

Design, then, operates at four levels: visceral, behavioural, reflective and, er, impactive. Looks, effect, communication and social cost/benefit.

The first two are, I think, well covered in education and design discourse, but the latter two perhaps not. ‘Communication’ is generally seen as the domain of graphic design but sociological approaches demonstrate quite clearly that design is used to communicate at a more basic, even ‘hidden’ way, and this needs to be a central element of any design course. And even though the ecological angle is commonly mentioned in discussions about design and the future of education, it doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in day-to-day critiques.

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