The Value of Users in Design Theory

AC4D_IDSE_102_Assignment 1

During our first 2 weeks of IDSE 102: Design, Society, and the Public sector, we read works from Edward Bernays, Victor Papanek, Maurizio Vitta, Neil Postman, and John Dewey. Considering how each author views the role of design in society, we were assigned to plot the 5 authors on an scale of not important to important. The criteria I developed for ranking is how each author values the individual.

The theme of individual autonomy has been at the forefront of my mind since arriving at AC4D. In IDES 101/201: Interaction Design and Research Synthesis, Aaron and I wrote a research plan with questions aimed to gain qualitative data from interviewees through their unique lens. Focusing on the individuality of the outliers provides valuable insights into problems and better informs solutions.

Under the lens the of value for the individual, the authors we read covered the polarity of the scale. Bernays views persuasion as a tool for shaping people’s beliefs and justifies this is moral because individuals in a democracy have free choice, hence only the best ideas survive. The act of persuasion in itself renders the individual to have no power, no ability to withstand the sway of propaganda. Yes, we live in a democracy with individual choice, but we also live in a free market where the volume of demand determines what survives, individual preference has little power on its own. The next author on the scale, Papanek, believes design must be sensible and responsible in a world with depleting resources. He cites a barrier to design innovation is cultural blocking, preconceived notions of the public that prevent adoption. In this context, the individual user is held in low esteem, they doesn’t consume with intention but only within what culture prescribes as normal.

Vitta believes design has the power to shape culture but designers must beware of the consequences. The identity of the designer becomes lost as commodification creates a shift where consumption becomes a source for consumer identity. While this acknowledges the user seeks individual identity, they are expressing a specific identity within the constraint of an image prescribed not by themselves, but by society.

In his support for experiential education versus traditional education, Dewey concludes teachers are responsible for creating meaningful experiences that will positively inform future interactions for the individual. Dewey shows a high regard for the individual in his desire to ensure protection of the individual user and create positive interactions to provide a continuum for future success.
Postman addresses a group of computer technologists and warns design innovation creates both winners and losers. It is imperative we consider the reprecussions of our creations; history shows that technology diverges from the original intention of the designer and can result in dangerous consequences. While computers can provide a plethora of valuable information, information has the ability to create chaos. Postman assigns ultimate regard for the individual in stating “The human dilemma is as it always has been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.”

Design serves numerous functions across our society from helping us move through our daily lives to fueling our capitalist economy. In all realms of design, artifacts are meaningless without the individual user. Our authors have ranged from considering the individual as something to control, believing the user consumes for the purpose of identity, to celebrating the complexity of the human dilemma.