The Special Nature of Ordinary

Ordinary gets a bad wrap.  Rarely do we celebrate ordinary.  Ordinary is the B student, the 3rd place finisher, ordinary is the domestic beer.  But within the ordinary there is something special, especially when we talk about design.  Ordinary is the nature of how we see the world; it is our default state.

Ordinary is often seen as being “not special” and this is a problem for  technologists and designers.  As designers we’re constantly asked to make something that will surprise and delight, but a thing can only be special for a limited amount of time; meaningfulness is a temporary quality.  Let us take a look at the default design example: Apple’s iPhone.  The iPhone was in many ways revolutionary, it changed people’s understanding of interactions with technology. It’s newness, however,  was short lived.  Smartphones have become interwoven in our culture to the point that they’ve reached the state of ordinary.  Rather than appreciating the appropriate and indispensable nature of the technology, we dwell on what’s the next big thing.

In their book “Super Normal” Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison purpose the concept outlined in the title.  Morrison argues that “The Super Normal object is the result of a long tradition of evolutionary advancement in the shape of everyday things, not attempting to break with the history of form but rather trying to summarise it, know its place in the society of things”.

What they are arguing for is a better understanding of design as something that should be, in its purest state, ordinary.  Ordinary is something special that should be revered.  So the question comes: What does it mean for an thing to be ordinary?

A thing becomes ordinary when it becomes ubiquitous within a group, both in use and cultural acceptance.  In this regard ordinary is a dynamic social quality actively managed through our use and interactions.  As a thing becomes ubiquitous in a culture it becomes ordinary.  We don’t look at everyday objects like chairs or utensils as being special, but at the same time we can’t imagine a world without them; the same could be said of the smartphone. Our collective sense of ordinary is shaped by our experiences over time, so as we learn new things our sense of ordinary changes and evolves.

In this way ordinary can be seen as an evolutionary mechanism in design. Ordinary isn’t a quality designated by a committee or marketing firm, nor do designers get to define what becomes ordinary.  Only through use, over time, will technology reach a state of ordinary and it’s that ordinary use that defines the requirements of the next round of technological development. Technologists can put things out into the world but only through use and cultural acceptance will a thing become ordinary, everything else falls off and is forgotten as evolutionary chaff.

Not only does ordinary highlight the useful nature of a thing, it reveals cultural appreciation and acceptance.  We have plenty of methods for measuring usefulness, but cultural relevance is much more difficult to gauge.  Ordinary can provide an opportunity to not only examine the usefulness of a thing but also the softer qualities, things like sentiment and emotion.  By focusing so closely on those things that are the most familiar it introduces an element of strangeness into the design process.  Strangeness can be a powerful provocation providing us a way of teasing out behaviors and patterns that might be normally overlooked.

As a design provocation, ordinary encourages us to focus on the longevity of a thing.  If meaningfulness is a temporary quality then by focusing on the ordinary we’re encouraged to make things that will last.  If a thing is built to be continually useful it provides the user with an opportunity to re-discover and reinterpret it’s meaningfulness over time.  In this way a thing can both grow with us individually and culturally.

Ordinary becomes a lens that highlights the things that are collectively important to us. In a time when cheap, temporary convenience and disposability are primary drivers of innovation, ordinary provides us with the impetus to pursue a more holistic and long-term view of design. Focusing on the special nature of ordinariness we get the opportunity to  better understand what makes a thing truly special.