Issue 15

Form Follows Feeling

 

Towards emotionally intelligent product and service design

Photos by Dirk Bruniecki Words by Richard Anjou
close-up of a notebook
"Essay by Richard Anjou"

Breaking free from traditional creative norms, the 18-year-old Marcel Breuer chose to leave the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts behind after only a few weeks and embark on a transformative journey. Venturing into Walter Gropius’ woodworking workshop in the Thuringian province, he found himself at the epicentre of the avant-garde movementthe birth of the Bauhaus. Here, function took the lead over decorative form, and the ethos of simplicity and essence became the guiding principles in architecture, design and art, connecting previously separate creative disciplines.

 

Breuer’s bold approach to shaping modern furniture and product design emphasised reduction, rationality and reproducibility, setting the stage for mass production. Among his remarkable creations, the iconic Wassily steel chair ­(Clubsessel B3) stands as a lasting testament to that eraan early glimpse into the possibilities of mechanised furniture production, tailored for the industrial age. While the underlying Bauhaus principles might now seem firmly established in design history, it’s crucial to recall that they emerged amid social instability, economic transformation and political upheaval, driven by a utopian dream where empathetic technologies, objects, architectures and creations shape a more radiant future and enhance our daily lives.

"Emotional Eperience"
Black and white photo of a man on the street with a bag in his hand

Recalibrating the human-machine relationship

 

Even a century apart from that pioneering moment, our present-day challenges in digital transformation and machine learning seamlessly echo this timeless sense of disruption, inviting us to reconsider the relationship between humans and machines. However, our strong focus on technological progress and scientific advancement can limit our ability to engage in profound self-reflection and fully grasp our fundamental human sensibilities, needs and behavioural mechanisms. Despite our extensive knowledge of technology and its functionalities, there’s still much to explore regarding our universal emotions and the insights they can offer. While modernity replaced the divine and mythical by its concept of the rationally thinking Übermensch, today we seek purpose and meaning in technology itself, elevating it to an almost metaphysical status. This raises a fundamental question: what kind of human future are we truly aspiring to? Only then can we determine how to employ technologies, products and tools to turn this vision into reality.

 

The challenges we facefrom climate change to digital security and privacyall demand profound introspection into the essence of our decisions. Every choice we make has an undeniable impact on the objects and services that shape our day-to-day experiences and surroundings. While industrialisation once reshaped the physical landscape, today’s digital realm offers a unique opportunity to nurture our inner emotional state and foster a thriving mindset. This represents a chance to bridge the gap between advanced technology and human nature, infusing life into our creations and artefacts, and harmonising beyond mere func­tionality, rationality and materiality. While Bauhaus demonstrated the expansion of the body’s limits through mechanical technology, today’s focus has shifted to expanding our minds, emotions and mental capabilities, as is currently evident in the field of machine learning.

 

 

 

 

Unveiling the emotional impact of invisible algorithms

 

The difference between Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair from the assembly line era and a digital product like Instagram lies in the fact that we can’t dismantle and analyse the components of the latter; its algorithm remains invisible to protect Meta’s key competitive advantage. For instance, while a combustion engine can be disassembled and examined for its ecological impact, the effects of algorithms used in numerous everyday products and services remain inaccessible and opaque. This applies not only to digital services like social media, but also extends to physical smart home products or the end-to-end data chain used in vehicles like Tesla’s. Understanding the purpose of each piece of code poses a significant challenge in product and service design. From this perspective, the significance of designing a device’s surface or interface diminishes, while the importance of the actual interaction, relationship and essence of the resulting emotional response becomes more urgent. Consequently, the quality of connection and relationship is at stake; the primary objective lies in creating emotional value by utilising the necessary technology. 

 

Whistleblower Frances Haugen’s revelations have shed light on the fact that teenagers’ mental health issues are not solely caused by a lack of self-control over their screen time and social media usage. The constant comparison and measuring of self-worth against others, driven by Meta’s business model, plays a significant role in this. The tech giant was seemingly aware of the negative emotional impact on young people due to the dopamine-fuelled features on Instagram. This takes on even more profound implications when considering the utilisation of data mining campaigns in influential events like the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum. These campaigns capitalised on mining and manipulating the emotional conditions of countless voters that were identified as insecure and persuadable. Machine learning will enhance the effect of such propaganda techniques and penetrate even more effectively and deeply into our minds and emotional constitution.

a man on stairs
close-up of hands holding a book

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