Design for Humanity

Concepted and authored by Daniel Eckler, co-authored by Shaun Roncken, Design for Humanity is an interactive essay exploring the past, present, and future of anthropomorphic design.

In 1950, the American psychologist Harry Harlow conducted an experiment that separated infant monkeys from their mothers just a few hours after birth. Each monkey was isolated in a cage and given two dummy mothers. One mother was constructed of metal wire and held a milk bottle; another was covered in synthetic fur and designed to resemble a real monkey, but it provided no sustenance.

Instinctually, Harlow assumed the infants would gravitate towards the metal mother because it provided a basic need: nourishment.

Much to his surprise, the infants preferred the animate mother despite her lack of milk. In fact, when the two mothers were placed side by side, the infants would suck milk from the metal mother and cling to the more realistic looking dummy.

Despite receiving all of the physical nourishment they required, the infant monkeys displayed much higher levels of anxiety and aggression as they matured. The obvious conclusion is that most creatures have immediate physical needs — be it sustenance or shelter — but there is a large emotional component that needs to be nourished as well.

Harlow’s monkeys preferred the animate mother because they were not just seeking milk, they were desperate for an emotional bond.

Form, Function, Feeling

Function lies at the core of every manufactured object, be it a door knob or a chair. We design objects to solve problems, to fulfill needs; whether it’s something we take for granted, like our effortless passage into another room, or a comfortable place to sit.

That said, there has been conflict tugging at the core of our design principles since Louis Sullivan popularized “Form follows function” at the dawn of the 20th century. Function may be the fundamental concern for many designers, but how strictly to cling to this maxim? Some, including Austrian architect Adolf Loos, would go so far as to call ornamentation a crime.

To flesh this out, let us consider an object that is primarily functional: the La-Z-Boy reclining chair, deliberately built for comfort and relaxation. All of its features are geared towards function, from its puffy cushioning to the side-mounted handle that allows us to recline for a nap. Some might say that its design is so explicitly functional that it is, for lack of a better word, ugly.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Picasso’s Chair, a contradictory piece of seating that’s impossible to sit on, unless you’ve been sculpted to fit into its jaunty, uneven lap. Picasso sketched his prototype on paper before folding it into existence, much like an origami swan. Its function is purely aesthetic; its form toys with the relationship between the 2nd and 3rd dimension in a playful way. In short, Chair’s experimental design has very little to do with utility.

Form and function are universal concepts that every junior designer considers when developing new work. But there is a third, more subtle factor at play in design; one that many designers may relate to subconsciously but rarely express as a priority in their design thinking: feeling.

Function may be the fundamental concern for many designers, but how strictly to cling to this maxim?

While Picasso’s chair does touch us emotionally, its pursuit is primarily intellectual, pushing us to consider the meaning of aesthetics, perspective, and form itself.

Contrast this with The Waterproof Garden Chair by Bert Loeschner.

This piece and others in his series encourage viewers to empathize with the common chair by anthropomorphizing it. A garden chair that was once hidden out of sight on a back patio suddenly becomes an old friend who looks neglected and lonely, and you find yourself apologizing because you’ve left him alone in the rain for the last 10 years.

Not every object that deeply considers feeling is so explicit. There are those rare sublime objects that manage to blend function, form, and feeling in a truly holistic sense. Hans Wegner’s Shell Chair immediately comes to mind: a piece of design that is not only beautiful and highly functional, its pleasant lines and smiling undercarriage encourage us to feel something, be it calm, comfort — even joy.

Man & Machine

The first time you meet someone, your first thought isn’t “How do they function?” it’s “How do they make me feel?” And when you’re asked about that person later, you describe their personality: “She’s relaxed, smart, witty. She makes me laugh.”

It may seem peculiar to apply the same attributes to inanimate objects, but if we take a moment to think about our belongings, we all have a handful of items that aren’t particularly useful or pleasing to the eye. Why have we kept them? Because we’ve formed a connection, and they’re meaningful in some way: the birthday gift from our best friend, the movie ticket stub from the first date with our significant other. These connections effect us subconsciously, breathing life into otherwise inanimate objects.

The first time you meet someone, your first thought isn’t “How do they function?” it’s “How do they make me feel?”

These emotional bonds (or lack thereof), are the invisible currency of contemporary life — something that advertising agencies are especially adept at tapping into. A 30 second spot for Trident isn’t concerned with form (the gum itself) or function (elimination of bad breath), they’re selling you an emotional experience (a kiss on your first date). If the ad works, it’s because they’ve transformed an innocuous grey sugar cube into an emotional connection with an attractive woman.

It’s no surprise that The Volkswagen Beetle, released in 1938 and produced until 2003, is the best selling design in automotive history. Referred to as “the people’s car”, its friendly round contours are punctuated with a pair of headlights that resemble cartoon-like eyes and a smiling bumper. The vehicle has such an affable design that Disney based a live-action film on the car: a thinking, self-driving Beetle called Herbie the Love Bug.

According to car design researcher Sam Livingtone, our attraction to the Beetle’s human features is deeply rooted: “Consumers are reading to some extent the face of the car as the face of a person and therefore will infer from it an attitude, be it aggressive, benign or friendly. Even if people don’t consciously read the face of a car, they certainly do it subconsciously.”

Design for Humanity

An interactive essay exploring the past, present, and future of anthropomorphic design. Also available as a talk.

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1: You’re here!

2: Apple, The Original Human

3: Conversational User Interfaces

4: A Smarter Future

5: Emotional Machines

6: Computers Cry Too

7: The Day You Become a Cyborg

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Thanks for Reading

This is an interactive + evolving essay. Please get in touch if you have thoughts regarding new content, modifications to current content, or anything else!

If you enjoyed reading this article, please hit the ♥ button in the footer so that more people can appreciate great design!

Hi, I’m Daniel. I’ve founded a few companies including Piccsy (acq. 2014) and EveryGuyed (acq. 2011). I am currently open to new career and consulting opportunities. Get in touch via email.

This article was co-authored by Shaun Roncken.

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