Design as an Experience
It’s a heavy weight that lies on the shoulders of a designer. Or at least it should be. Matthijs van Dijk, professor of applied design at the Delft University of Technology, thinks that designers are not thinking enough about end users and their psychology.
Van Dijk bases this view on the work of psychologist J.J.Gibson who wrote about the concept of affordances in 1979. People react in very specific ways to specific stimuli. Designers need to consider this and even consider themselves responsible for this reaction.
“All products elicit specific behaviours from users,” Van Dijk says, “and designers should be able to predict this.”
When the effect on an end-user is thoroughly considered, what the designer is actually doing is designing an experience.
“You could then say a designer steers behaviour, although I think steering is probably too heavy a word,” says Van Dijk.
But the larger point is that what is or should be happening is the design of an experience. The opposite approach might be called Trial and Error. Regardless of a designer’s intention, with no knowledge about the relationship between stimulus and effect the impact on society is unpredictable. And that can be dangerous.
“You could just put an object out into the world and see what happens,” Van Dijk says. “And if you believe in evolution this could be an interesting way of working, but frankly I think nowadays we do not have time to rely on the selection principle.”
The experience approach to design goes back to the very core of the social design phenomenon that has been dominating discourse for the past few years.
“If a designer is honest, what he or she is really doing is making a pre-selection when it comes to deciding what is important for people,” Van Dijk says.
That is a hell of a responsibility.
“It is,” Van Dijk admits, “but the point is designers have been doing it for one hundred years and either not admitting it or at least not talking about it.”
Talking this through with Van Dijk inevitably leads us back to the topic of design education.
“You need to understand psychology to be a good designer,” he says agreeing that a broader more general education is essential prior to starting anything technical.
“Technology is only the means,” he says. “In the end it is about how people perceive the objects you design. Knowledge and production are of course important, but first you really need to understand what goes on in people’s minds … or you at least have to try.”
Christien Meindertsma is one of the best examples of a young contemporary designer who designs with society in mind. “She really is on the right track,” Van Dijk points out. “Her work is clearly focussed on society as a whole and she is always interested in the side effects of what she does – that is, the side-effects on society.”
Which is exactly what design academies need to be much more focussed on - training designers to change the role design plays in society.
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