Reflection is an integral step in the design process. Through reflection, I see the bigger picture, becoming more conscious of my own perspective, motivations and aspirations. As my amorphous thoughts become more chiseled and defined, I can more consciously make decisions regarding my design process. This section exhibits my reflections on the current state of design and my future aspirations for the field.
Architecture vs. Interaction Design
Originally, meaning inspired form. A range of architectural styles from religious to indigenous exemplifies this claim. The Athenians built the Parthenon at the height of their Golden Age to signify the wealth, divinity and immortality of their civilization. To reflect this message, the scale of the temple is divine in nature. Built completely of marble, the pediments feature over 20 large-scale figures, and it is believed that the temple housed a 40 ft. sculpture of Athena herself.
Indigenous architecture also exemplifies this sequence of form following meaning. It is no coincidence that traditional architecture is generally well suited to the climate that it inhabits. For example, the traditional homes of hot and arid climates, are generally composed of thick earthen walls that absorb heat during the day and release heat to warm homes during cool nights. Comfort and survival are human values, which are universally expressed through the form of indigenous homes.
Architecture is one of the oldest and most imperative design disciplines, as humans depend on shelter for survival. Since architecture is an age-old tradition, the associations between meanings and the architectural forms they incite have been tested over millenia and “perfected.” Because we as human beings interact more directly with physical forms than with the meanings that physical forms mediate, we sometimes lose our understanding of the original meaning behind the form. Or the meaning becomes so intuitive from the form that it becomes hard to separate and rests subconscious in our minds.
In contrast to the design process that characterized earlier epochs, modern architects will now begin working directly with physical forms, accepting the meanings that have become associated with them through thousands of years of practice and testing. So when architects design an experience, they use a vocabulary of forms to do so. And although these forms are associated with meanings, these associations are never questioned. In other words, the forms are considered more consciously than the meanings behind the forms, because the meanings have become sort of intuitive and therefore subconscious. Architects are user experience designers, but they focus on the manipulation of forms to shape experience, rather than the implicit meanings behind the forms.
But now we are exposed to a new material – digital material. It is clear that people have meaningful experiences with digital applications, but the meaning to application associations have yet to be established and conventionalized as they have been in the field of architecture. In addition, the meaning and interpretation of a single digital application may vary from user to user making it difficult to establish the same kinds of concrete conventions that we see in architecture.
Due to the intangible nature of digital applications, it has again become clear that meanings can exist independently of forms. Yes, the form of something can emphasize the meaning behind it, but the meaning still exists independently. This allows designers to reenter the process of first considering the meaning as a way to design experience. Interaction designers get to design what this meaning is and how it fits into a user’s life.
Because meanings are dependent on human interpretation, it is not only the job of interaction designers to envision the meanings that inspire digital applications, but to also define the mode of interaction with these meanings. Meanings are ideas that are not necessarily visual, because they don’t always exist in the physical dimension. Therefore they can generally be articulated through words or informational diagrams, rather than drawings.
After a meaning and mode of interaction are established, a form/interface should be designed to evoke the selected meaning and interaction. Together, meaning, interaction and materiality form a design, which elicits a user experience that is two-fold. The first component of experience arises when users interact with meanings. The second component of experience is more sensory in nature and arises when users interact with the physical form of the designed object. These two sides of experience work together to elicit an overall sense of experience.
What architects stand to learn from interaction designers:
- Architects should revisit and question the established meanings behind physical forms. Yes, conventions exist for a reason, but we should be aware that they aren’t necessarily timeless and universal.
- Architects should consider designing the meaning and interaction first and then exploring which forms would exemplify the aforementioned best. That isn’t to say that maintaining and following conventions is bad practice as long as architects have justification for doing so.
As we discussed earlier, many meanings exist independently of physical forms, such as: emotions, thoughts and morality. Yet, there are certain meanings whose existence depends on the physical world, such as: physical forms themselves, the way the world appears and motion.
- If the meaning is independent of physical form, the meaning and interaction should inspire the design of the physical form.
- If the meaning is dependent on a physical form, the physical form, the meaning and the interaction should be designed concurrently.