Design and Language.
But first. What is ‘Design’ ?
Art is a question to a problem. Design is a solution to a problem.
Art should have little or no explanation attached to it. ‘It’ is the message. It is up to the person consuming the art to delve deeper and ask questions, or take it as is. The artist can ‘finish’ an artwork when he deems fit and no once can question him. It is his message that he sends out into the world, it is one-way communication. Mostly.
Design, on the other hand, serves a purpose. It is deliberate. The design is an answer to a question which often comes to “is this the best way to do something as measured by metric ‘A’ ?” As the metric changes, the design can be evaluated based on the above question. And then the answer can be plotted on a spectrum from good design to bad design. There can be several metrics necessary for complete evaluation of the design, however, the weight assigned to each of these metrics depends on an important entity. The user.
A person experiencing anaphylaxis (a very serious, near life threatening, allergic reaction.) needs Epinephrine. He doesn’t need the world’s most beautiful drug-delivery system. He needs an effective and quick drug delivery system. Otherwise, he might end up dead. So if we want to design the best solution for his benefit you may think the metrics will be efficiency and speed of drug delivery. Unfortunately, you are not completely correct as he is not the primary user of the “drug delivery system”. The primary user is someone around him who can actually use the designed system when the said person experiences anaphylaxis.
The ‘user’ is the person who administers the epinephrine. He needs to be able to use the drug delivery system to help the ailing party. If the design of the delivery system does not enable the user to perform his task satisfactorily with his existing knowledge and training to perform that task, then that is a bad design. For this particular instance, which happens to be the most important one. You may have the drug delivery system in the most durable material and in the Pantone color of the year. But if it fails the topmost criteria you have to back to the drawing board and start again.
An EpiPen is a very common drug delivery system that is used the world over in emergency situations like anaphylaxis to deliver epinephrine. It uses an injection-like process to deliver the epinephrine sub-dermally. The user has to palm the EpiPen and press on one end while holding the pen almost perpendicular to the surface of the body. The user has only a few seconds to remove the EpiPen out of the storage, then remove the packaging and then administer the drug. What if you are the neighbour who saw an elderly collapse in the garden and has no idea how to use the bloody thing ! The design itself has to communicate to the user, how to use the EpiPen. The how-to can be supplemented by messages on materials accompanying the object but remember there are just a few seconds to complete the task.
The ‘design’ that will result in the highest number of successful epinephrine doses wins, it should also be intuitive enough to help new users avoid injecting themselves by mistake.
Why does design need languages ?
As I said earlier design is a solution to a problem. Sometimes these problems are fairly simple like joining to surfaces of wood. Sometimes the task is to reduce the errors while flying a commercial airplane. If you tell me the airplane cockpit should be completely intuitive and anyone should be able to walk into a cockpit and fly it, then you should reconsider reading any further. It takes tremendous amounts of communication between the cockpit and the pilot for a successful flight. Most of this communication happens in an encoded manner. Not a spies and espionage sort of encryption but rather an encryption that the pilot learns painfully yet deliberately over many many hours. He knows what the cockpit is telling him when a needle moves, when lights blink, when a light goes off, when the configuration of several inline lights display one pattern vs another and when along with all of these signals the engine starts billowing out thick black smoke.
Most designs though are not for tasks as complicated as setting the coordinates and going to sleep after take-off. And users don’t want to invest several hundred hours in learning to communicate with your design.
But designers keep inventing new objects, new manners of usage for existing objects, new ideas, new ideas for new ideas and sometimes they ruin well-designed things with what they think is ‘courage’.
These novelties might not be clear enough to communicate what are they for and how are they supposed to be interacted with. They need a description. This can be done with a descriptive name or a witty little slogan underneath the same old name. But most of the times we need to communicate the raison d’etre of designed objects or services. The question now comes how do we do it. We do it through verbal or non-verbal communication. Through cultural norms and shared sensibilities.
Languages are the tools to communicate in the most simple way. But even within languages, there are many constructs that one can use to send across a message. Some of the ways to do it are:
1. To describe it
2. To compare it to an already known pattern and then use that pattern in a different context
1. Hold the object towards the proximal end such that the length splits the angle between your thumb and index finger while it rests in your palm, and then curl your fingers around its axis and rest your thumb on your fingers.
2. Hold it like you would hold a magic wand with the needle near the base of your palm with your thumb extended towards the other end.
Languages are bridges between worlds. They are and for some time will be, the best interface ever designed.
On this blog, I will be writing several posts on why and how important languages have been for the design world and how we have used the crutches language provided and taken them to past new horizons.
The ‘metaphor’ is one such tool gifted to us by language that we use without second thought, but upon careful introspection and study, we can learn a tremendous amount by observing how metaphors have shaped our understanding of the world.
As an example, I would like to ask you. How many of you know what a desktop is? It is not a computer, it is not inside a computer, it does not need any external power source. It was a tool designed by someone and has seen many iterations through the years and has served thousands of people very well in its original form and intended use. But only a fraction of people alive today in 2016 would know what the original desktop was. I will talk about it more in my next article.
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