Emotional Design: A Review

Review of: ” Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things ” by, Donald A. Norman (paperback 2005); New York, Basic Books.
Ian J. Ewart, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford

I had to like this book, it was a matter of principle. Being an engineer turned archaeo/anthropologist, I am constantly frustrated by the lack of consideration in material culture studies of the processes which go into creating objects. Consumption has been in recent years dragged from the anthropological skip, cleaned up, and put on show at the front of the house. Where Exchange used to be the be-all and end-all of analytical tools, now Consumption has been very successfully added to the mix. We can now debate issues of consumption as anthropologically charged, relevant and intellectually stimulating.
But what’s happened to Production recently? Traditionally filed under ‘M for Marxism’, there is more to making things than meets the eye, at least that eye which is cast over the literature on material culture. We have to some extent broken away from the ‘Art paradigm’ (hurrah!) and seen a fruitful move into, for example, the mundane, the sacred and the downright tacky. Initially debated along the lines of whether these things should be collected and displayed, or what rights they have to be elevated to the academic centrefield, alongside the more deserving and implicitly more scholarly ‘Works of Art’, a more enlightened outlook now prevails. However, I think now is the time to throw some of this enlightenment into new and shaded areas. Let’s begin to re-think issues of Production: for starters, how about the process of conceptualisation-design-manufacture? Or re-aligning ‘Technology’ as an anthropological concept, representing something other than hi-tech, or development assistance? What about Materiality as material choices of socially charged appropriateness? Never mind Picasso ‘borrowing’ African art, what about borrowed Technology? (cold weather clothing and indigenous plant pharmaceutics immediately spring to mind). This is surely a fertile field yet to be harvested.
Coming back to ‘Emotional Design’ (if I was ever there), this book is written by Don Norman, a prolific author whose background is in cognitive science and design. Some of the points he makes are familiar to anyone who has studied material culture, although he is explicitly Western and modern in his outlook. This does jar slightly on occasion, such as his list of genetically programmed affects (29-30), which are within us all as a result of evolutionary forces. One negative affect (sic) for example, is a fear of jungles and forests. I need to bear that in mind next year when visiting the Kelabit in the rainforests of Borneo. Similarly in discussing why attractive things work better, he sidesteps debates about universal aesthetics and assures us that the Jaguar E type is undeniably attractive. That may be true, but the basis of his argument I feel is somewhat weakened by not engaging with some of these debates. Having said that, Norman is a cognitive scientist interested in the design and use of modern products, so it is perhaps understandable that he should concentrate on those societies which are the prime movers in his field. As a branch of anthropology, material culture studies would need to be a little more circumspect in its assertions, and there are some here (such as those mentioned above) which need to be treated with caution.
What I want to do though, is to use this book as an example of a way in which we can draw on the work of a different discipline to illuminate our own subject of study. Norman uses this book to outline his theory explaining why we love or hate everyday things, a general topic of central interest to us all. In the process of design (which I suggested above was one facet of Neo-Productionism), Norman considers three ‘Levels of Design’: visceral, behavioural and reflective. By considering each of these in turn, he provides a cognitive model for the nature of objects. The ‘visceral’ level is the basis for his discussion on attractiveness, dealing with appearance and the emotional response thereof. For Norman, this is a natural state, something intrinsic in all human beings, coming from our evolutionary relationship with the environment: bright colours, sweet tastes, organic shapes that sort of thing. Although the cross-cultural universalities are perhaps overstated, the general point is a good one; positive emotional response comes from aesthetically pleasing design. Secondly, the ‘behavioural’ level deals with the functioning of an object. Performance and usability matter. This raises interesting issues of the design process, for example the use to which a product is put, versus the use for which the product is designed. We are familiar with the idea of an object being appropriated in culturally specific ways, but how was the original concept used or abused in generating that variety, and what is the response from, and influence on, future designs? For example, products can be made to have built-in difficulty, whether a piano or a blowpipe, to create a cult of secrecy and awe, but how is this justified socially and in terms of engineering? Consider also jeans designed to fade in a particular way, such that they retain a trace of use (a wallet mark on the front pocket for example), hence enhancing their emotional attachment.
Norman’s third category is ‘reflective’ design. He discusses how we respond to objects (or in many of his case studies, brands) in a culturally controlled way. Reflective design is aimed at producing a self image which is projected to those around us in a way that distinguishes our personality, values and aspirations. These signals are of course not only projected, but also received, and it is the reception that determines the message. So reflective design is a complex interaction of personal meanings and communal messages; a typical enough area for current material culture studies, but one which Norman discusses from a slightly different perspective, as part of the design (and I would argue production) process.
Norman concludes by saying ‘we are all designers’ in that we use objects in innovative ways particular to ourselves, which may not (or perhaps may) have been intended by the design process. He approaches what is quite mainstream material culture studies without intending to do so. As a cognitive scientist and a designer, his interest, and indeed my own, is in the way that objects come into being in a physical way, prior to but at the same time part of, their use, re-use and disposal. Although this book is in many ways flawed anthropologically, it does suggest an avenue for investigation, a new direction for material culture studies, and one which I wholeheartedly recommend. Now, where did I put my Lemonnier…