Design and behavior

I’ve gotten my overview of design instrumentalism as nailed-down as I can get it for now.

I’ve moved on to the design part of the book. This is what I worked on this morning.

Every organization depends on human behaviors for its continued existence and flourishing. An organization needs its members to behave in certain ways that support and sustain the organization, and to not behave in other ways that harm it. It also depends on behaviors of people externally associated with the organization. If the organization exists to serve other people, it needs those people to notice, accept and use its service. If it relies on external partners to supply it with needed materials, products and services, it needs them delivered reliably. Big changes in internal or external behaviors can put an organization in crisis.

Businesses are a common example. A business needs its employees to work effectively, efficiently and harmoniously to produce or deliver whatever product or service it offers its customers. It needs its customers to notice and choose its product or service, to keep choosing it, and to recommend the product to others. A business also has partners upon whom it relies to supply the business with needed materials, products and supporting services. If the behaviors of employees, customers or partners become erratic or interfere with the goals of the business, it must respond to the change or risk damage, decline and dissolution. It will work to restore the old behaviors, or it will try to produce new behaviors wherever and however it is able, to cope with the change, perhaps through reorganization, changes in marketing approach or formation of new partnerships.

When power is unequally distributed, behaviors are often controlled through coercive means. When employers hold most of the power and are aware that employees have limited employment options, they tend to demand more from them and manage their activities more closely. Likewise when employees hold power and are aware that employers are competing for employees with their skills, they become less tolerant of authoritarian management styles, and expect more benefits and amenities from their employers. The same is true with partners. If a partner is the only provider of a needed product or service, they will behave differently than if they are competing with others for the partnership.

But when power is more equally distributed, coercion gives way to persuasion. People give up on controlling one another’s behaviors and instead try to influence their decisions. When competition to persuade and influence becomes sufficiently fierce, design becomes important. Design is a symptom of equality and freedom.

This does not mean that design is essentially a behavior-influencing discipline. It does, however, mean that design is a behavior-influencing profession. It is the need for influencing behaviors that motivates organizations to employ designers and pay them money to do their strange kind of work.

Design work is strange because conditions of freedom have made it strange. Very early on its rapid evolution, the plans for industrial production of artifacts to be offered on the market – design’s initial purpose – became plans for more competitive products – products that customers would prefer to competing products. But what made a product preferable? Functional quality, of course, is always important, but constant improvement and technical innovation (plus, extinction of companies unable to keep up), soon brings products to rough functional parity. When functional quality stops driving preference, what makes one product preferable to another? A list of some of these more refined preferences shows hints of the future development of design: better aesthetic qualities (depending on individual taste, of course); more specialized functionality, optimized for particular uses (valued by some individual users and not others); better value trade-offs (striking different balances of cost, function and aesthetics, each appealing to different value priorities). 

With each ratcheting-up of competition, the definition of preferable is increasingly  relative to individual values, and the subject gains importance relative to the object. Every question must be qualified with “for whom?” And the answers, to be understood sufficiently that they can be applied to practical problems, are no longer straightforwardly factual, but require perspectival shifts into that of the people in question. For those who remain trapped in an objectivist outlook (still the majority of people), the shift seems mostly “subjective” – learning what the emotions a person feels, when they encounter various objects or events – cast in psychological terms, against a background of universal objective truth. But if the current trajectory holds, soon it will be impossible to ignore the truth that these emotional responses are only the emotive tip of a deeply objective iceberg, and that until the objectivity and emotion of a person’s response are comprehended together, the subject is most likely misunderstood in terms of one’s own subjectivity.

This is an important event in my life. Usually I write blog article that make it into my book. Today I wrote something for my book that I’m sharing as a blog article.


1 thought on “Design and behavior

  1. This is great. Congratulations!

    I found this passage particularly evocative: “When competition to persuade and influence becomes sufficiently fierce, design becomes important. Design is a symptom of equality and freedom.”

    It brought to mind for me the difference between designers and marketers. Let’s assume an idealized commodity market, say for carbonated non-alcoholic beverages (roughly sodas): lots of competitors, lots of consumers, free movement of employees, etc, ie no role dominates.

    Clearly, persuasion/influence are paramount here. By making it a commodity market, however, I am effectively stipulating that the product itself cannot be designed to be better (despite decades of trying).

    In such a market, it is now left to marketers to persuade/influence. And that’s exactly what we see in the soda market: vast sums are spent on marketing to gain market share; very little is spent on designing a better product.

    But what do the marketers try to persuade consumers to feel/believe? Tellingly, the don’t try to persuade consumers on the usefulness or usability of their soda. All the persuasion goes into desirability. And the typical way they create desirability is by persuading consumers that their soda will enable a given consumer to participate in a certain kind of lifestyle or feel like a certain kind of person.

    This gets me to “soon it will be impossible to ignore the truth that these emotional responses are only the emotive tip of a deeply objective iceberg”. Marketers try to discover objective (widespread) subjectivities (desires). If a marketing campaign is successful, the marketers have created a connection between their soda and a widespread (read objective) “lifestyle” (read emotional, subjective, personal). Are “kinds of lifestyle” and “kinds of people” an example of objective subjectivities?!?

    Not sure if I’ve missed the mark, but I feel like this example helps me understand what you’re trying to say about subjective/objective.

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