Rapidly snaking through the traffic, first behind me, then beside me and then way in front of me, was a mid 80’s Oldsmobile. Compared to today’s standards it was massive. Four doors, with a hood you could serve Thanksgiving to a family of 6 on, and a trunk that could house 8 sets of golf clubs.
My immediate reaction was “The guy must be a graduate from the Joey Chitwood Stunt Driving School to maneuver a car like that through this traffic.” But when I looked down at my speedometer I realized he was actually not driving that fast. After some thought, I got to wondering why it seemed like that was the case.
I concluded that there was a relationship between expectation and truth at play. In the world of design this is referred to as “semantics”. To over simplify it, this is defined as things that look like the function they provide.
Had the speed demon been in a European model with a roof line lower than my knees, I might not have had the same reaction. In fact, I might have thought “too bad that dude can’t really unwind that thing and drive it like it was intended.”
Since the highway system was designed so emergency vehicles can travel at 90 mph safely, it’s safe to say that both the Olds and a Euro mid engine can handle the task at legal speeds. What was odd was that the big boxy sedan didn’t “look” like it was comfortable with what it was being asked to do.
How can form influence respone and why?
Design semantics are powerful, and can evoke a strong emotive reaction… for better or worse. Look around your home or garage and see if you can find this concept in use. The little bird on the whistle of the Michael Graves tea kettle, the pulsating on/off button on a iMac, the grip on your toothbrush. The little wavy vents on your blow dryer.
What’s fascinating is trying to determine if it’s the form that evokes the reaction or is it our awareness of the brand. With a purely functional perspective, there are many “semantics” found in nature that are really classic forms following function examples. The coat of a polar bear, or the ears of a rabbit. I can’t for the life of me figure out why a skunk is black and white.
There are a lot of facets on this gem that are at play. Culture, memories of childhood, geographical influences and many more. All of which influence how we react to things and our perception of how they should work. And therefore, our final opinion on the success of doing so.
As we approach the act of designing, we must consider these things and insure that when we are done creating a space, a product or a presentation… the end results is at least representing a hint of its function. Semantics are in place to enable an intuitive response, to minimize a learning curve. It’s more intuitive to see wine goblets suspended from their base in an overhead unit, than stacked in a cupboard under the counter.
Delight the end user with a pleasant surprise !
Having said all that, there are times when complete surprise is the intent and in doing so, the end user is overjoyed. Even in those situations, the outcome and reaction was intentional.
That still doesn’t explain the skunk’s choice of wardrobes.