Essays & Articles


Where Emotional Design Fails

I suppose I ought to be pleased. The phrase “Emotional Design” is pervasive, with consumer products of all forms touting the virtues of the emotions. The automobile companies lead the pack, as usual, emphasizing the emotional impact of their new designs, bragging that they are a far remove from the bland, dreary cars of yesteryear. Computer manufacturers all have Apple-envy, trying to show how they too can capture the excitement that Apple has brought to its new monitors, computers, music players, internet devices, and even to the otherwise dull, technical world of servers.

New television sets are indeed spectacular, as thin screens permit imaginative designers to display the sets upon lovely, futuristic pedestals and mounts.

So why am I not happy?

The problem is simple: long-ago I touted the virtues of a human-centered design, one that takes real needs of people into account. Yes, people have emotional needs, and aesthetic pleasure is a good thing. But let’s take another look at how these new devices add to our aesthetic pleasure: they fail miserably. They are art-centered, prize-centered, object-centered. The one thing they are not is human-centered.

Take an example of superb, spectacular design: the Samsung pedestal TV (See the figure).

The Samsung Pedestal DLP Television Set. Truly attractive — in the showroom or museum, but it would overpower my living room.

Beautiful, but.

The problem with these new designs is that they are works of art, meant to be admired as objects standing alone. The design focuses upon itself, not upon those who must live with it. Now, this approach works fine for automobiles, for they are indeed solitary objects. It even works for music players, such as Apple’s iPod, where the player itself is relatively small and inconspicuous, so that its beauty adds to the pleasure. But what about something to be placed within the living room?

Where would I put the Samsung TV? It is attractive, true, but its style dos not fit the furniture in my home. I do not live in a modernistic home, with stainless steel and glass furniture, with forbidding modernistic lines and the kind of stark, cold beauty of the Samsung. No, I live in a normal, comfortable, messy home, where something like the Samsung would stick out, drawing attention to itself, and severely clashing with everything else in the house. Human-centered? Not for this human.

Beauty is contextual. For the objects in our home that we must live with, the context matters. What surrounds the objects? How do we use them? What is our living style?

Most of the spectacular new designs for home appliances fail at fitting into the lifestyles of ordinary people, people who do not live in designer homes, people whose humans are filled with wood and fabric, not glistening metal and glass. Bu look at most computers, television sets, audio sets, and even kitchen appliances. They are either ugly, in which case we don’t want them, or they are sleek, fancy, and fashionable, which makes them look good on the showroom floor, but not within our homes.

Old fashioned computers were ugly (most still are), which didn’t fit. Some of the new ones are spectacularly beautiful, especially the displays (the computer itself, after all, can be hidden under the desk). But the new, spectacular displays are as much a mismatch with the rest of my home as the old, ugly ones.

So if I am unhappy with both the beautiful and the ugly, what is the solution? Appropriateness, that’s what. I see no reason why TV sets, computers, and other appliances could not be made to blend in with the home, fitting neatly into living spaces without calling attention to themselves: not the spectacular nor the ugly. Appropriate.

What we need is appropriate design. Design that fits our living styles. And until we have that, I will shun both the ugly and the spectacular, but rather look for things that fit my life, my home, and the context within which I operate. What this has meant for my family is that we hide our computers away, out of sight. We do the same with our television set, building it into furniture, so that the set is all-but invisible. So too with all those loudspeakers required for today’s surround sound – hidden behind cloth panels, whose colors match the rest of the room.

Designers of the world: Beauty is nice. But fitting in even nicer. Let’s return to human-centered design, to appropriate design.

COMMENTNo sooner did I post the above notice then I got a strong critique from Scott Preece to the entire premise. “Been there, tried that,” was the substance: people tried putting radios and television sets into furniture, and the idea failed, he said. The critique was long, detailed, and very lucid. The worst part about the critique was that I agreed with much of it.

To quote one small part of Scott’s critique:Ultimately, I think you’re wrong on this one (unless you want to argue that TV manufacturers should be pushing projectors, the only form of large display that CAN be inconspicuous, as the primary form for large TVs). Consumer choices led to dropping furniture-style TVs a long time ago, and I don’t think consumers would respond much differently now. Note that one of the key advantages of new rear-projection TVs is specifically that the new projection technologies allow them to be smaller and thinner, so that they do away with the old furniture-style cabinets of previous units.

I am preparing a response, and I’ll incorporate the objection and my response into a modified version of the paper — making a stronger case, I think. The problem is a difficult one, but I believe strongly that we have to move from designing technology to designing furniture (or in the case of mobile phones and music players, to designing jewelry, something the watch manufacturers learned some time ago).