Last month, I read the printed issue of WIRED on the Future Of Design, and for some reason, I felt used, alienated, and just about ready to throw my computer and all my chic electronic devices out the window. Why? because I felt I was being limited and controlled through them. The moment I turned on an electronic device and opened an app, I was being manipulated by it to click this button or type that text or swipe some direction on the screen. I did have a goal in mind, but that goal was being modified and changed by the device I was using. Now I could put these modifications down to the limitations of the hardware and software I had available to me, but that wasn’t the whole story, at least, not according to the articles in WIRED. Some of these limitations were set intentionally by designers in order to ensure that their users would have the “best experience” in using their products. WIRED noted this and proposed a future for design in an increasingly connected world.
Three words on the front cover, and referred to in each article, boldly proclaimed their vision for design: “Invisible, Beautiful, Everywhere.” The vision proclaimed by these words make sense when you consider the current focus of modern design as spearheaded by Apple: to make a device or service which allows the user to easily achieve the goal or end that he has in mind. Using those three words, WIRED painted a picture of devices invisibly woven into our reality that help us accomplish our goals simply and easily while removing supposedly frivolous and unnecessary choices as well as limiting error.
Sounds good right?
Yet somehow, at the end of this rosy picture, I wanted to punch a designer in the face. Why? because the modern designer suddenly sounds like a puppeteer who pulls the needed strings to ensure people use his devices as he intended. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If I design a store website, I want people to enjoy that online store so that they buy more. However, the reach of design does not simply end here. Good design inherently takes into account human psychology and the user’s goal, intentionally limiting the user’s focus to those tasks needed to accomplish that goal. For what broad goal are we designing these devices that they must be available “everywhere” to us?
These articles brought to my mind the last chapter in C.S. Lewis’ book, The Abolition of Man. C.S. Lewis describes the consequences of scientific planners crafting a superman. Since the cause must be greater than it’s effect, Lewis ridicules the superman idea with the logical conclusion that a superman will be limited and less than those scientific planners who brought him into existence. In the current push to design modern electronics to be invisible, beautiful and everywhere, I see a trend to design an experience using a similarly limited and materialistic conception of man and the world that either blithely ignores or shrilly protests any actual facts which do not fit within that conception of reality.
We designers need to be careful with the broad or final goal of design and the role our modern electronic devices play within our lives, for if we design wrong we will design ourselves toward death. So let us design not only for the immediate human goal, but also for the final or eternal Creator-given goal because only then will designers make experiences which allow human beings to be what they are created to be.