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Design and control


At the Frieze blog, Alice Rawsthorn suggests that as the objects we interact with everyday grow rapidly and exponentially more complex (e.g., computers, smart phones, smart cars), design is at watershed moment. As such objects record sensitive data and enable invasive surveillance, it increasingly feels like they control us. But if designers collaborate more closely with tech companies, involving themselves in the design of such products from their very inception, they can restore to us the feeling that we are in control of the tools we use:

Often, designers have tried to reconcile us to new things by suggesting that they are not so very different from familiar ones through deploying skeuomorphic design references. The wooden casing of the escalator in Moholy-Nagy’s poster served as an early example, disguising those newfangled mechanical stairs as traditional wooden ones. The same rationale explains why we type instructions to computers on old-fashioned Qwerty typewriter keyboards, and why the apps on our digital devices are often identified by images of the telephones, letters and other analogue objects that they are threatening to replace.

Designers now need to develop different approaches. One problem is that we are so adept at decoding some of the old ones, they are becoming less effective. The public debate around skeuomorphism suggests that more and more of us are so confident about using digital devices that we not only consider such cues to be superfluous, but feel patronised by seeing a paper envelope identifying the email app and a telephone handset for the phone on our supposedly state-of-the-art iPhones.

Image: Jacques Tati, Mon Oncle (My Uncle), 1958. Via Frieze.