Tag Archives: design

“Man-made, artificial, mutable” — Dunne (2005), (In)human Factors

Chapter 2: (In)Human Factors (pp. 21-42)

from Dunne, A. (2005). Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. MIT Press.


Paradigm of user-friendly design generates “enslavement […] to the conceptual models, values and systems of thought the machines embody” (p21)

“By poeticizing the distance between people and electronic objects, sensitive skepticism must be encouraged, rather than unthinking assimilation of the values and conceptual models embedded in [electronic objects]. I am not arguing for a way of designing that is free of ideological content but, rather, for one that draws attention to the fact that design is always ideological. User-friendliness helps conceal this fact” (p22); values and ideals in designed objects not natural, objective or fixed, but “man-made, artificial, mutable” (ibid; emphases mine)

“poeticization” can be generated via “estrangement” and “alienation” [note Suvinean / sf-nal connotations of those terms – critical design as related to the cognitively estranging “novum”?]

“Once the computer became a successful mass-produced object, innovation in interactivity shifted from hardware to software…” (p23) [in terms of trialectic model, hardware becomes infrastructural, software layer seizes the interface layer almost completely]

“To use the existing patterns of knowledge to define a new technology’s possibilities for conveying meaning is not far from the Victorian use of Corinthian columns to support beam engines; design holds back the potential of electronics to provide new aesthetic meanings …” (pp29-30) [relation to skeumorphism? Think also of perpetuation of old and established service models in infrastructural systems; through consistent service design, novelty and power of supporting infrastructure is effaced; persistence of magicality]

“The easy communication and transparency striven for by champions of user-friendliness simply make our seduction by machines more comfortable.” (p30) [equivalence to patter and misdirection of the illusionist? complicity of design in the Spectacle; comfort of familiar metaphors]

domesticity, “pet” technologies; at the other extreme, “alien” technologies

“constructive user-unfriendliness”, NOT user-hostility (p35) [analogy made to foregrounding of language in poetry and literature; poetic function brings an opacity, a playfulness, a drawing-attention-to-itself-ness…]

Design-as-text: “Similarly [to the text as defined by Barthes], in the case of the design object as text, designer and viewer [and user?] play equal roles.” (p36)

Weil’s 1980s radios as “objects about objects in the age of electronics” (p37)

Functional estrangement: “… a form of strangeness that lends the object a purposefulness […] found in the category of ‘gadget’ that includes antique scientific instruments [Newton’s cradle?] and philosophical toys […] objects that self-consciously embody theories and ideas” (p42)

“The fit between ideas and things, particularly where an abstract idea dominates practicality, allows design to be a form of discourse, resulting in poetic inventions that, by challenging laws (physical, social or political) rather than affirming them, take on a critical function.” (p42)

Instant Archetypes: 21st Century Tarot from Superflux

As acolytes of the Cult of Ellis may already be aware, the Kickstarter campaign for the Instant Archetypes card deck has just gone live. If you’re interested in futures, the occult, hypermodernist semantics, lush and unique artefacts, or some mix of all four of those — and if you’re still reading this blog, I figure you’re interested in at least one of those things — then I invite you to pop on over there and pledge for a deck.

Those of you reading here because of an enduring interest in my own perspective on institutional dynamics and tactical foresight might be further interested to know that you can also pledge for a consulting session with yours truly, in which I’ll work with you and the cards to think through whatever question or issue you’d most like to explore. (Apparently they decided to ignore my suggestion that this be billed as “consult a scruffy academic wizard about teh fewtch” — which only goes to show you how smart those Superfluxers really are.)

It’s really satisfying to see this project finally come to light; we first floated the concept during the lobby track of FutureEverything 2015, which for a variety of reasons, both personal and contextual, feels like a different aeon entirely… though somehow this feels like exactly the right time for it to emerge, too. The fashion for futures’n’ design folk producing decks of cards was just starting to pick up a head of steam; as I recall it, I made some fairly flippant comment about how you could just dig out an old tarot deck and achieve much the same thing, or even use Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Anab and Jon asked me to explain further, and so I rambled on about archetypes and sortilege and Jung, and Gaiman & Pratchett’s Good Omens (which is perhaps the most formative cornerstone of what passes for my personal cosmology), and how I’ve long used the tarot as a writing prompt or creative disruption device, whether for fiction or non-fiction work, or simply just for life in general. Anab suggested we should make a reboot of the tarot specifically for futures-y folk, which I thought was a wonderful idea, albeit one that would most likely go the way of so many lobby track brainstorms. But it seems it stuck… and in fits and starts, taking advantage of gaps between Superflux projects and the demands of my doctoral studies, we thrashed out rewritten names and definitions for the Major Arcana, and found an amazing artist in Amelie Barnathan.

I still feel a twinge of guilt over the art phase of the project. Amelie asked me quite a few times for further interpretations of my little scripts describing the cards, or for suggestions as to how she should bring the symbols to life, and every time I told her that she should just go with what her own head and heart were telling her in reaction to my writings — which was clearly frustrating for her in at least a few cases. But I had an intuition that the deck would only have a proper visual unity and a genuine freshness if I stayed out of the art side as much as possible. (I was also mindful that I didn’t want to do a Crowley and browbeat an artist into channeling my own ego through their skills; Crowley was a great mage, but also a manipulative douchebag, and I don’t believe that the latter is essential to the former.)

As mean as it seemed at the time, I think my instinct was right: when the PDF of the finished designs came through, I actually cried, because they were just so *right*. The strongest magic comes from people finding their own way through the maze, and the resulting cards are so much better than they would have been had I tried to come up with more detailed prompts for the visuals. Think of it as an alchemy, if you like; I certainly do. (And thank you, Amelie, for enduring my refusal to guide you; I hope you agree it turned out for the best.)

And because it’s a Superflux joint, not only is the artwork fantastic, but the production values are off the freakin’ hook: designers are perhaps the ultimate details people (more so even than mages, if there’s any substantive difference), and every little aspect of the cards has been obsessed over and refined in prototype after prototype. They don’t just look amazing, they feel good in the hand — and that tactile aspect really amplifies the ritual vibe that’s essential to getting your head in the right space for thinking at angles to the actual. The Instant Archetypes are a genuine artefact, an object that expresses all the obsessive attention and passion poured into its creation, and I’m ridiculously proud to have played my part in bringing it to being.

As far as I’m concerned, this is my first book — and best of all, it’s a book that contains every story ever written, and all the ones that have yet to be written. I hope you’ll enjoy exploring them.

Dispositionally or structurally retrograde

… typically as designers, and in broader culture, we’re looking for the right answer. As designers we’re still very solutionist in our thinking; just like righteous activism that pretends to have the right answer, dispositionally, this may be a mistake. The chemistry of this kind of solutionist approach produces its own problems. It is very fragile. The idea of producing a ‘master plan’ doesn’t have a temporal dimension, and is not a sturdy form.

Having the right answer in our current political climate only exacerbates the violence of binary oppositions. Our sense of being right escalates this tension. I’ve been trying to think instead of forms which have another temporal dimension that allow for reactivity and a branching set of options—something like a rewiring of urban space. They aren’t vague – they’re extremely explicit – but they allow for responses to a set of changing conditions.


Regardless of spectacularly intelligent arguments, the bending of narratives towards ultimate, teleological ends – and the shape and disposition of these arguments – doesn’t work for me. Dispositionally or structurally it seems slightly retrograde.

I just don’t see change as singular or ultimate. It doesn’t come back to the one and only answer, or the one and only enemy that must be crushed.

There are many forms of violence, and it almost seems weak to train your gun on one form of it. There isn’t one singular way in which power and authority concentrate, and there’s not one giant enemy. Such thinking leaves you open to a more dangerous situation.

Keller Easterling interview at Failed Architecture, riffing on her latest book, Medium Design (which is apparently only available in print if you get a copy mailed from Moscow). Easterling is among the brightest of lodestars in my personal  theoretical pantheon; her Enduring Innocence not only rewired how I thought about space, but also rewired my conception of how an academic text could be written.

The interface and the illusion of control

Most obviously, in using [smartphones] to navigate, we become reliant on access to the network to accomplish ordinary goals. In giving ourselves over to a way of knowing the world that relies completely on real-time access, we find ourselves at the mercy of something more contingent, more fallible and far more complicated than any paper map. Consider what happens when someone in motion loses their connection to the network, even briefly: lose connectivity even for the time it takes to move a few meters, and they may well find that they have been reduced to a blue dot traversing a featureless field of grey. At such moments we come face to face with a fact we generally overlook, and may even prefer to ignore: the performance of everyday life as mediated by the smartphone depends on a vast and elaborate infrastructure that is ordinarily invisible to us.

(Ordinarily, and also purposefully; Clarke’s Third Law is an implicit and nigh-ubiquitous directive in contemporary interface design, and in that enduringly popular branch of genre fiction known by its practitioners as “technological forecasting”.)

Beyond the satellites, camera cars and servers we’ve already identified, the moment-to-moment flow of our experience rests vitally on the smooth interfunctioning of all the many parts of this infrastructure—an extraordinarily heterogeneous and unstable meshwork, in which cellular base stations, undersea cables, and microwave relays are all invoked in what seem like the simplest and most straightforward tasks we perform with the device. The very first lesson of mapping on the smartphone, then, is that the handset is primarily a tangible way of engaging something much subtler and harder to discern, on which we have suddenly become reliant and over which we have virtually no meaningful control.

Adam Greenfield. The screen is the site of the Spectacle.

The designer’s prestidigitation

As Apple’s chief designer Jony Ive recalls, when he and his team sat down to redesign the iPhone operating system in 2012, it did away with many of the classic skeuomorphic elements: “We understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits. So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got design out of the way.”

From here. This is an act of deceit on Ive’s part, but it is the same act of deceit in which all designers engage, which is the same deceit as that of the stage magician: the appearance of disappearance. Design wasn’t “got out of the way” at all; indeed, its invisibility only underscores the ubiquity of its influence over the user’s experience.