Posted by: biswajitdash | September 4, 2007

Design as Communication

Note that sometimes design is done by an individual, sometimes by a group. Designers sometimes are trained, often with degrees and certificates, sometimes not. But everyone is a designer at times, and whoever decided which soap dish to purchase and where to place it was designing, whether or not they had the official title of one. In the case of the bathroom, multiple designers were clearly involved, for the racks, bars, trays, tub, and shower equipment were commercial products, designed remotely in some industrial location, probably by different people in different companies, independently of one another. Whoever picked those particular products and configured them within the room was also designing, even if each of the individual items was already manufactured. Design is a complex activity, and most of the objects, spaces, and even services that we interact with were designed by multiple people, sometimes in synchrony with one another, sometimes not. 

Each placement of an object, the choice of materials, the addition of hooks, handles, knobs, and switches, is both for utility and for communication. The physical placement and the perceptual appearance, sound, and touch all talk to the users, suggesting actions to be taken. Sometimes this conversation is accidental, but in the hands of good designers, the communication is intentional. Design is a conversation between designer and user, one that can go both ways, even though the designer is no longer present once the user enters the scene.

 Once we start to view design as a form of communication between designer and the user, we see that perceived affordances become an important medium for that communication. Designed affordances play a very special role. Now we see that the designer deliberately places signs and signals on the artifact to communicate with the user. The metal tray made of wires clearly both affords support for solid objects but not for liquids. Hence, the very visibility of both the positive affordance (support) and the negative one (porosity, or perhaps leakiness) tell the user “put something here that fits this space, that requires support, and that you do not wish to be in a puddle of water.” Given the limited number of items one usually takes to the bath or shower, given the size constraint of the basket, and given the strong negative affordance of leakiness, what else could be meant except for soap: so the wire support shouts out to the shower-taker, “put your soap here!”


A similar communication happens in the virtual world of screen design. The computer user is often at a loss as to what to do. By making certain regions of the screen take on perceptible, distinctive appearances, the designer is communication the design intention. These are designed affordances, messages from designer to user, attracting attention to the set of desired possible actions.
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