Industrial design, why are you in my head?

Admittedly, I use objects on a daily basis without giving them much thought, but at times, I can’t turn of the rhetorical analysis. For example, I will notice a new product on a shelf and ask, “Why did they choose that font?” or look at my coffeepot in utter amazement at the fact that the plastic grooves match up perfectly to my hand placement. How did they know I wanted my coffee pot to feel like it was made for me?

Luckily, they – industrial designers – have already anticipated exactly what I wanted or needed from my coffeepot this, and every, morning. They even went to college to study how to give all of us, in the age of mass production, what we want.  Granted, my mini-revelations are part of the mystique, as the field of industrial design is meant to drop into the background, to add to my (your) experience without me (you) even knowing it. It’s a field that interrogates many factors, uses way more math on a daily basis than some of us use all year, and applies rhetoric in a very real way.

The full impact of the use of rhetoric in industrial design became evident to me a few weeks ago while watching a documentary titled Objectified by Gary Hustwit, the producer of font enthusiasts’ favorite – Helvetica. Objectified showcases some of the names that we may  or may not recognize (such as Chris Bangle – BMW, Tim Brown – IDEO, and Jonathan Ive – Apple), but whose creations we touch every day. These designers are expert rhetors whose awareness of audience is incredible.

Industrial designers must analyze and gain approval from a future audience at a future occasion. Unlike the Sophists, who as John Poulakos explains, “. . . were interested in the problem of time in relation to speaking (38)” and that speech is appropriate when it is used in response to the right occasion, industrial design is limited to predicting a customer’s future needs by focusing on appropriateness and occasion.

Poulakos defines rhetoric as “…is the art which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible (36)”, and he explains that the Sophists placed emphasis on kairos (or the “opportune moment”), an evaluation of “the appropriate” (to prepon), and to envision “the possible” (dynaton) (36).  Industrial designers must think of a future kairos, a future “appropriate”, and a future dynaton. They are strikingly aware of the “opportune moment” that the object will be used, what’s “appropriate” for the time and place, and what “possible” ways the consumer will utilize, view, or think about the object.

The field is also Aristotelian at times as the designer must create an object that will appeal to the audience not only on an aesthetic and physical level, but also emotionally and logically. However, industrial designers have to apply a Sophistic approach as well – a focus on appropriateness and occasion. They must decide what will be appropriate and appealing to an audience after their product has been manufactured, packaged, shipped, and purchased – much like many of us have to determine how a future audience will react, interpret, and engage with our writing. While most of us are used to writing with a certain audience in mind, attempting to predict how the audience will approach and react to it, most of us don’t create an object based on the assumption that it will be appropriate at a specific occasion in a person’s life.

Unlike the Sophists and Aristotle’s prescriptions, appropriateness for industrial designers isn’t to stand out; rather, their appeals to their consumers are subtle. The audience is meant to have no idea that someone predicted, rather accurately, exactly how they would like to interact with their coffeepot at 6:30 am, how they would hold hedge clippers, how they would feel when sitting on a sofa after writing a long-winded blog post, etc.

Even watching the designers walk through their process in Objectified, I can’t believe  a designer can really decide exactly how I want my potato peeler to feel, look– except that they know me better than I know myself. They have anticipated the kairos of my morning, as has been discussed for centuries, by fully comprehending the wants and desires of their audience, me. Now, not only do I look at objects and think about who made them, what choices they made, but I also think about what assumptions they had to make about me . . . and how they get it right. Thankfully, I’m becoming comfortable with their presence in my head, since they’ve been there all along.

Works Cited

Objectified. Dir. Gary Hustwit. Plexi Productions, 2009 Film.

Poulakos, John. “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric”. Philosophy and Rhetoric 16.1 (1983): 35-48. Web. 23 Sept. 2010.

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One Response to Industrial design, why are you in my head?

  1. Jim Porter says:

    Richard Buchanan is a design theorist who applies a rhetorical lens to physical objects. Worth looking at.

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