Emotionally Durable Design, Jonathan Chapman

Emotionally Durable DesignIn this article I’m going to explain why I like this book and why you should read it – indeed why you must read it. This is not a full review, but rather it aims to put the core concepts of the book into the context of higher education studies.

Jonathan Chapman is the Professor of Sustainable Design at the University of Brighton (which is on the south coast of England). His book played an important part in my PhD, and I think it needs to be read far more widely by everyone involved in designing things in higher education. As I demonstrated, that really means everyone in the University, and many people beyond (policy makers, funders, alumni, parents). Today, in the digital age (which is a cultural as well as a technological epoch) a thing that is as complex as a university, and dependent for its being on the involvement of many people, is constructed by the actions of those people, with more or less “design agency” distributed between them. Indeed it might be the case that the stranglehold of the central powers (architects, administrators, tenured academics) is weakening. The university of the near future will be far more an emergent product of the interactions between the many different concerns, projects and practices of a radically diverse population.

There is, for example, a powerful trend in assessment design, visible in even traditionally conservative disciplines. The shift is towards seeing diversity and student-led innovation as being of value. That isn’t necessarily a new thing in itself. In my discipline, philosophy, students are rewarded with top marks for creating their own essay questions, perhaps even discovering whole new areas for the philosophical exercise, and then responding to their own challenge with novel solutions. But today the difference is that the format in which assessments are presented is becoming more divers. There is scope for student reinvention in every aspect. And so, to complement that creativity, the question of how student work should be assessed is now more open than ever. Students are increasingly co-designers of the modes of assessment applied to their work. Today design is everywhere.

But that does not necessarily mean that good designing is happening everywhere. Or indeed that we have a shared sense of what that good might be. Chapman himself challenged me over this – asking if I adhere to the claim that today everyone is a designer. My answer was: no, not everyone. There’s more to being a designer than having a semi-conscious or un-conscious impact on the shape of emergent designs. We need to make a distinction between many different levels of engagement with and different roles that may be played in the design process (emergent or top-down). I identified a taxonomy of three (everyday, guerrilla and professional), but in reality that is a gross simplification (albeit a useful gross oversimplification).

But perhaps we are not doing enough to evolve a sense of good design collectively? And that’s where Jonathan Chapman’s work steps into play. Emotionally Durable Design is a design-philosophical work concerning fundamental design values – that is to say, the values that guide the choices that we make and the judgements that we draw when designing, selecting and using designed things. Given that design agency is becoming decentralised, and that we need to promote wider and more inclusive dialogue concerning good designing and designs, then critical-creative focus upon design values is a vital necessity.

So what’s so special about this book? Well today a new set of design values are becoming common currency. Some of these come from architecture, some from technology, some from cognitive science (Don Norman being a key player), combined with many other sources. For example, we talk of the need for “delight” in the use of designs – there’s an echo of aesthetic theory in that. We talk of spaces that “inspire”. There’s a rich language, much of it quite vague and imprecise. You can find it in institutional strategy papers, web site blurbs and graduation speeches delivered by glassy-eyed vice chancellors. On the other hand, we use design values that offer analytic and empirical precision. How “scalable” is it? How “sustainable” is it? That last question is of course especially significant. We understand that over consumption is a risk to the planet. So we want sustainability in the sense of lower carbon emissions and the preservation of natural resources. There’s also a kind of wise Capitalism behind this thinking (if that’s not just a contradiction). Sustainability in this sense also means the continuation of the business. I hear that a lot in discussions with managers in the IT world when confronted with innovation: is it sustainable? or will it eat human and technological resources to the detriment of the business – to the point of collapse? However, often the debates around sustainability in all of these senses get tied in knots – both rhetorical and empirical.

Chapman’s argument takes a very different, very original track down the sustainability route. What if our problem wasn’t just about sustainability? What if that’s just a symptom of a deeper failure in our design values? What if our problem really is that:

  • despite our good intentions and the resulting consumer preference for products and services carrying the “sustainable” label;
  • our desire for novelty, for difference, for churning through updates and faster, smarter, sexier stuff, is in fact a real threat to the environment and to the stability of society;
  • and what if this constant restlessness is driven by our failure to find products and services that are “emotionally durable”? – that stick with us for longer, perhaps even a lifetime?

Emotionally durable – yes, that chimed with an observation that I had made in the University. In terms of information technology I had seen how our “early adopters” (to use Everett Rogers’ imprecise term), the very people who should be leading the discover of well-fitting technology practices, are in reality propagating a restlessness, resulting in a continual churning through new things. They don’t seem to be asking: will this stick with me and others? or what do we need to do to achieve durability? The dominant emotions are frustration with the way things are and excitement with the prospect of novelty.

Now of course that is a good game for Capitalism to play. We can keep feeding its ferocious all consuming drives, even when we label something as sustainable – indeed the car industry is now profiting hugely from the tightening grip of eco legislation. It’s no longer a matter of making each generation of car a bit faster and a bit more luxurious. Progress in environmental terms gives another reason to upgrade, even if that means more junked old cars (and the massive environmental costs implied). Car showrooms and adverts are full of paradoxical messages concerning sustainability and consumption. The vast automotive advertising industry exists to manage our emotions, to keep us from feeling buyers remorse (the purpose of most advertising today is to tell us that we did buy the best product after all) and at the same time keeping us on the edge of wanting more. Personally, I’m a motorcyclist, and in fact a BMW rider – a brand well known for its emotional durability (not unlike many long term BMW owners I’ve had the same bike for 15 years, kept it repaired and refurbished, and have no plans to upgrade). A visit to a modern BMW Motorrad (motorcycle) showroom illustrates the dilemma. Back in the early 90s the company came close to financial failure. Not surprising with customers like me. So they have in the last 25 years slowly embraced a different approach, becoming addicted to cheap PCP finance plans allowing “buyers” to upgrade every year or two to the latest slightly faster, slightly more tech enhanced, slightly more environmentally sustainable machine. My model of bike, the Gelandestrasse (GS), has increase in power from 65bhp to 115bhp, and shows no sign of slowing down.

But emotional durable design is, as Chapman demonstrates, a difficult design value. Having introduced the concept his book concerns itself with the question of how we achieve this deeper and longer level of engagement with things. There is no simple answer. Humans develop deeper and more resilient emotional connections with things through a synthesis between the significance of the thing in their own life (both instrumentally and coincidentally) and an empathy for the thing itself, its sustenance and maintenance. The task then is to design to make those connections, for the production of meaning through an open and evolving relationship:

“Meaning is not something self-sufficient that lurks dormant within the semantic layers of an object until someone accidentally notices it, nor can it be universally designed or programmed. Meanings are created between people and things, and though designers can endeavour to create and trigger meaningful sensations within users, the explicit nature of those meanings is largely beyond the designer’s control.” (Chapman, 2005: 165)

How do we do this? That is a question we need to explore more, in general and in every specific design domain.

So what has this got to do with the University? Obviously we have a responsibility to further the dialogue concerning design values. And we can contribute academically to the debate in many ways. But I argue that there is something far more important for us to do. Students come to us to learn how to live, how to produce, how to consume and how to design. As participation in HE increases, so too does its role in shaping the ways in which people live in wider society – including their design values. The dialogue concerning design values, especially emotionally durable design, needs to include students by default. As argued above, universities are design-rich places in which design agency is distributed widely to all points. That should be an opportunity for all students to engage in good designing and the dialogue concerning the nature of good designing. We can start by considering how we can make the many things that we create (lectures, seminars, learning designs, academic practices, courses, departments, spaces, services etc.) more emotionally durable – how we can put this design value to the test in what we do everyday. We can oppose the tendency towards churning through experiences and novelties, which to some in HE can seem like an easy way to gain power and funding. Instead we can help revitalise our relationship with things:

“A revolutionary consumer reality is born, catalysed by new and provocative genres of emotionally durable objects and experiences that are designed for empathy.” (Chapman, 2005: p.18)