Saturday, 3 September 2011

The beautiful, functional, invisible nation

nationcrafting: the beautiful nation

Most people, when you talk about design, think first of all about aesthetics, then about the idea of a relationship between aesthetics and functionality, between form and function.

Within this discussion, you will generally find two sides.

The first side will advocate that design fulfills some kind of emotional role. The concept of "Emotional Design" was analysed in depth by Donald Norman, who put forward the idea that humans primarily form an emotional connection with the world, that emotions are the primary channels through which we understand the word, and that it is those emotions which are later rationalised. Therefore, to create objects humans can understand and connect to with some kind of immediacy, we must above all create objects that are sensual, beautiful, emotionally and aesthetically pleasing. The cover of Norman's book shows off Philippe Starck's lemon juicer in all its glory (pictured above).

nationcrafting: the functional nation

The second side will advocate that form follows function, that the criteria for how things should look are some kind of aesthetic parallel to how they function. This latter approach is perhaps best exemplified in the Bauhaus chessboard, designed by Josef Hartwig (pictured above). In this chessboard, every piece is designed to correspond to its way of moving on the board. The knight - which always moves in two separate, perpendicular directions - is designed as two perpendicular blocks, reminding the user of this move. The bishop, which always slides diagonally, is designed with a diagonal cross on top. The pawns, which only move forward one square at a time, are presented as small cubes, etc.

nationcrafting: the invisible nation

There is a third approach to design, which is much less talked about, and even less actually seen. That's because it is invisible. Or, rather, it is so well tuned into how you live your own life, that you don't even notice it's there while you interact with it. The experience is invisible because it is just part of the fabric of your own reality.

Consider, for example, your interaction with human-generated light. Light is turned on by flicking a light switch next to the door as you walk into a room. The light fills the room immediately, and you go about your business in the room.

When a lightswitch or lightbulb stop working, or when the electricity supply stops, that is the moment when we become aware of the actual lighting system in the house.

Similarly, air conditioning works in the background while we go about our business, mostly unaware that it is working. When it stops working properly, we complain about the heat, or we complain about the fans being too loud. That is when we notice the aircon system: when it stops working.

Possibly the best way to witness invisible design is by analysing good film editing. Viewers are often surprised when you ask them to alert you everytime a cut happens in a film: the average shot is about 3 to 5 seconds, depending on a film's pacing, yet when we watch a film, following its chain of thoughts, we are mostly unaware of the cuts between shots actually taking place. A dialogue between two characters is interspersed with listening shots, reaction shots, characters are shown from further away in the beginning and we cut into close-up shots later on, etc. Yet the overall effect is of a smooth, perfectly believable dialogue: the cuts are invisible.

In fact, most of the storytelling tools used in cinematography are fine-tuned to a point of invisibility: the viewers are so enchanted into the story being told that they suspend their awareness that this is a movie, and let the content hijack their own chain of thoughts. People come out of movies having laughed and cried, having liked or even loved certain characters and hated others. Considering their secondary nature, movies are really a very transformative experience, and much of that transformative power comes from the fact that so much effort has been put into making the medium itself disappear, thereby raising the secondary experience to the perceptual and mnemonic status of a first-hand experience.

Another great place to witness invisible design is on the web, perhaps even more so because the viewer is turned into a user, an interaction takes place that puts it in the same design family as product and architecture design. Steve Krug, who wrote the book "Don't make me think", advocates the idea that the best online interaction is the one you just don't notice, the one that is designed in such a way that you interact without having to think about the interaction itself. This can be seen in even the smallest things, for example, when a shopping cart offers you the option to continue along a particular path, or go back to change something: the confirmation has to be on the right, the "going back" on the left, because the former is about taking a step in the future, the latter about correcting something that was done in the past. Similar to the broken aircon system, it's when the online experience frustrates us that we pay attention to its idiosyncracies. Online users mostly just want to do what they want to do, without having to negociate the actual workings of the website. Usability theory is based on this, and usability testing is primarily about getting users to do certain tasks on a website (say, booking a flight, or finding out something) while saying out loud what it is they're doing - or trying to do - during their interaction.

In the context of nationcrafting or nation design, the first two themes - emotional and functional design - are very enlightening.

The first - the emotional approach to design - is particularly important in the field of nation branding, the "big idea" citizens buy into on an emotional level when they feel a connection with their nation. Typically, this is the nation state's attempt - more or less successfully - at identifying its institutions with the smaller communities the citizens were born into, or the ones they were immersed in during their childhood, or the ones they feel a personal connection to because of personal values. Italy is a great case study for this, as many Italians today still feel a closer emotional connection to their city (which would have likely once been a city-state in its own right) than they do to the concept of Italy. I'll get back to this in a separate essay on nation branding. Benedict Anderson defines the nation state as an "Imagined Community", putting forward the idea that a modern nation is different from an actual community because it is not and cannot be based on everyday face-to-face interaction between its members. The mental, emotional image of the nation state members hold in their minds is the product of broadcast (i.e. one-to-many) secondary experiences, mediated through TV and newspapers as well as constructed events such as international football matches, rather than shared (i.e. many-to-many) cultural experiences. The creation of nation states as imagined communities is made possible by the ascent of the print and broadcast media. It therefore stands to reason that the loss of relevance of the print and broadcast media in comparison to multi-user interaction and shared information will cause an erosion in the relevance of the nation state as we know it, in favour of nation models that are made possible by the ascent of multi-user, interactive and shared mediatic experiences.

The second - the functional approach to design - opens up interesting questions regarding the way we switch the management of state institutions. Consider, for example, the Bauhaus chessboard mentioned earlier. The connection that exists between its form and function is not something that can be improved on by alternating the people in charge and changing the brief, following an election every five years. The essence of the product is such that it cannot be improved by, say, decorating the chess pieces with highly ornate designs: it would be just, well, missing the point... The design can, of course, be improved, but only by taking its approach further, by exploring ways in which form and function are more tightly connected. This applies to nations, too, the difference being that you can always buy another chessboard and choose to play one today and the other tomorrow. The same cannot be said for your nation services provider.

However, it is the third approach to design - the invisible approach to design - which reveals the critical difference between politics on the one hand, and good nation design on the other: politics - the group of services provided by the nation service provider - is today very, very visible. In fact, we are constantly made aware of politicians and of the political, they are the opposite of invisible. This, despite the fact that it is actually a sector with relatively little progress: the pace of acceleration is a fraction of what it is in sectors such as computers and telecoms. Not many new states are created, and the ones that are mostly rely on variations of previously designed constitutions to define the rules of interaction between their citizens.

The point is this: they are visible and audible because they aren't working properly. If they were working properly, we would be as aware of politics as we are of properly functioning aircon systems.


  1. Food for thought... Need to plod through your entire blog during the weekend. Fascinating stuff...