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Book Review: Hertzian Tales

Book | Author | Review

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – October 25, 2006

This review takes a personal look at Anthony Dunne's book Hertzian Tales.

Book

Cover of Hertzian Tales     

Anthony Dunne
Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design
The MIT Press
, 2005
ISBN: 0262042320

General, Design

 

 

Author

Anthony DunneAnthony Dunne is Professor and Head of Interaction Design at the Royal Collage of Art in London. He is also a Partner in the design practice Dunne & Raby, London.
(From book cover)

 

Review

Introduction

Anthony Dunne's renowned book Hertzian Tales, originally published in 1999, reappeared in a second edition in 2005. According to the author, the primary purpose of his book is "to set the scene for relocating the electronic product beyond a culture of relentless innovation for its own sake, based on what is technologically possible and semiologically consumable, to a broader context of critical thinking about its aesthetic role in everyday life." First, Dunne is frustrated with the limited role that industrial designers currently play in the development of electronic products. And second, he firmly believes that "design, too, has much to contribute as a form of social commentary, stimulating discussion and debate ... about the quality of our electronically mediated life."

In his preface to the 2005 edition, however, Dunne admits that "very little has changed in the world of design" since the first edition in 1999. He continues: "Electronic technologies are still dealt with on a purely aesthetical level. ... Design is not engaging with the social, cultural, and ethical implications of the technologies it makes so sexy and consumable." He concludes his preface by expressing the hope that his book's main argument will now take on a new relevance, namely "that design can be used as a critical medium for reflecting on the cultural, social, and ethical impact of technology."

Overview

Hertzian Tales is divided into two main parts: Chapters one to six explore design approaches to developing aesthetic and critical possibilities of electronic products outside a commercial context:

  • The Electronic as Post-optimal Object discusses existing design approaches to the development of aesthetic possibilities for electronic objects, such as "The Electronic as Lost Object" (theoretical perspectives), "The Electronic as Object" (design approaches), and "The Electronic as Post-optimal Object" (aesthetic possibilities)
  • (In)human Factors discusses the role of different degrees of user-friendliness. It contrasts user-friendliness with user-unfriendliness (or inhuman factors), which uses techniques such as estrangement and alienation to inform the design of electronic objects
  • Para-functionality investigates the design of function rather than form to provide new types of aesthetic experience
  • Psychosocial Narratives discusses behavior as a narrative experience that is determined by electronic objects, and considers the embodiment of unusual psychological needs and desires in them
  • Real Fiction discusses systems of presentation and consumption for ideas that exploit the conceptual status of objects as ideas (as opposed to objects as mass products)
  • Hertzian Space explores how artists and designers have made links between the invisible environment of electromagnetic radiation and the material culture of objects; it draws attention to the neglected aesthetic dimensions of electromagnetic fields

Chapter seven, Hertzian Tales and Sublime Gadgets, presents five conceptual design proposals for post-optimal objects created by Dunne and his co-workers: Electroclimates, When Objects Dream..., Thief of Affections, Tuneable Cities, and Faraday Chair. These proposals, each focusing on different design issues and exploring values that differ from the mainstream ones, are neither prototypes nor products that could be mass-marketed. Nevertheless, they are technologically realistic to a certain degree and could be used for "mass-consumption."

Why Radios and the Electromagnetic Field?

Let me start my review by asking why Dunne is concerned with radios and the electromagnetic field – a long established medium – rather than more recent developments, such as cyberspace, virtual reality, and ubiquitous computing. Dunne argues that electromagnetic radiation is fundamental to electronics because all electronic products are a combination of radiation and matter. For him, it is important that the electromagnetic field – although most of its spectrum is hidden to our senses – is physical and real, not virtual like cyberspace. The field has existed since the beginning of time, and only recently has mankind begun to add its own transmissions to it, creating a "complex soup of electromagnetic radiation." According to Dunne, "the extrasensory parts of the electromagnetic spectrum form more and more our artificial environment, yet designers direct little attention toward the possible sensual and poetic experience of this industrially produced new materiality." He continues: "In design, immateriality is often referred to through visual motifs ... but it is rarely dealt with directly as a physical phenomenon." Dunne, however, views "the conflict between the conceptual and the perceptual aspects of hertzian space as an appropriate vehicle for investigating the boundaries between the imaginary and the actual." In line with this reasoning, most objects and design proposals presented in Hertzian Tales are not examples of visual design. Instead, they build on multiple senses and physical characteristics. To be more concrete, the designs might often be rightfully called deliberate "perversions" of radios, scanners, antennae, or technical instruments. I will return to the "perversion" aspect later in the review.

Design and HCI Critique

Dunne criticizes commercial – or mainstream industrial – design for treating the electronic object simply as a package for technology, "designed to communicate use, cultural meaning, and corporate identity through its surface." He also blames design for being comfortable with its role of using "its powerful visualization techniques to propagandize desires and needs designed by others, thereby maintaining a society of passive consumers." In his opinion, "design research in the aesthetic and cultural realm should draw attention to how products limit our experiences and expose to criticism and discussion their hidden social and psychological mechanisms."

Dunne also directs strong criticism at the Human Factors, or HCI, community, "who have developed a view of the electronic object, derived from computer science and cognitive psychology, that is extremely influential in the computer industry." In his opinion, the serious problem with this view is "the adoption of the 'American Ideology,' or the ideological legitimation of technology. He cites Virilio (1995):

"In design, the aim of interactivity has become user-friendlyness. ... This view of interactivity has spread to less utilitarian aspects of our lives."

As a result, the "optimization of the psychological fit between people and electronic technology ... is spreading beyond the work environment to areas ... that have so far acted as counterpoint to the harsh functionality of the workplace."

Let's continue with Virilio (1995):

"Interactive user-friendliness is just a metaphor for the subtle enslavement of the human being to 'intelligent' machines."

According to Dunne, "the enslavement is not, strictly speaking, to machines, nor to people who build and own them, but to the conceptual models, values, and systems of thought the machines embody. ... We unwittingly adopt roles created by the Human Factors specialists of large corporations."

For Dunne, "design is always ideological. User-friendlyness helps conceal this fact. The values and ideas about life embodied in designed objects are not natural, objective or fixed, but man-made, artificial, and muteable."

To sum up: "Current design approaches aim to optimize the experience of using an object, with the effect of constraining our experience to the prosaic. ... Although transparency might improve efficiency and performance, it limits the potential richness of our engagement with the emerging electronic environment and encourages unthinking assimilation of the ideologies embedded in electronic objects."

Dunne's Approach

Dunne questions whether conventional notions of user-friendlyness, that is, striving for cognitive clarity, are compatible with the aesthetic experience. As "rationality and reality have become synonyms in an industrial society," we need to revise this limited notion of reality and include aesthetic and poetical aspects. But how do we reach a design approach that takes due account of these aspects?

For his investigation into appropriate design approaches, Dunne sets off by negating current concepts, such as user-friendliness and human factors: He coins the terms "user-unfriendlyness" and "inhuman factors." Instead of striving for the optimal object, he strives for the "post-optimal" one. In creating this notion, he was inspired by Marco Susani's remark that industrial products have reached an optimal level, and that designers should turn their attention to less optimal environments. Dunne argues for the shift to post-optimal objects: "When practicality and functionality can be taken for granted, the aesthetics of the 'post-optimal' object provide a much richer field of investigation." For this investigation he experiments with "inhuman factors," such as (functional) estrangement or alienation through "para-functional" or even "perverted" objects. According to Dunne, para-functionality is "a form of design where function (not form) is used to encourage reflection on how electronic products condition our behavior. The prefix "para" suggests that "such design is within the realm of utility but attempts to go beyond conventional definitions of functionalism to include the poetic."

Examples of para-functionalism are eccentric or pathological objects that may arouse forbidden emotions. Thus, the electronic object in Dunne's sense does not have to fulfill our expectations with respect to its functionality – it can surprise and provoke, arousing the feelings of alienation and distance.

Of Dunne's conceptual design proposals, Thief of Affections probably fits the characterization of a "perverted object" best. It embodies an alternative model of a user, a "perverse" role model, as Dunne writes. Interestingly, the design of the personality became part of the product, which was designed to find out, how affection can be "stolen" from other people. The person using the Thief of Affections, a kind of stick, would grope the victims' hearts by intercepting radio signals from heart pacemakers and utter a kind of caress by emitting vaguely erotic sounds. Thus, the object turned into a Thief of "Radio" Affections...

Anthony Dunne - Thief of Affections

Figure 1: Anthony Dunne's Thief of Affections (photo by Lubna Hammoud; source see references)

As a final comment, I would like to ask: Are pathological objects conceivable in software? Of course they are, even though they are neither the focus of developers nor HCI professionals... Viruses and their countless variants might be listed here, but usually their purpose is to cause damage, not to promote creative thoughts or enlightening emotions. They could be viewed as "perverted objects." Here are three simple pathological software objects for demonstration:

  • A very "easy-to-use" application: It consists of one button with the sole function of erasing your hard disk (see references)
  • Another very "easy-to-use" application: It consists of one button telling you that the application will do everything that you want (see references)
  • A button that escapes the mouse cursor whenever you try to click it (I built one using Apple's HyperCard...)

None of these examples can compete with Dunne's design proposals, but they carry the "spirit" of pathological objects and they are, in a sense, caricatures of ordinary software objects.

Erase my Hard Disk
    
I Do Everything that You Want
    

Figure 2: Two "pathological" applications and a "pathological" pushbutton

The second example is special, and in that respect it resembles some of Dunne's examples, because it is not functional ; it is mere fiction. But people understand this fiction, experience an "aha" effect, and would say that, although this is a nice-to-have thing, it is regrettably impossible...

Conclusion

The author does not mention a specific audience for his book. In my opinion, the book's target audience is the design community. It seems to me to be less "accessible" to the HCI community because usability practitioners may have difficulty with appreciating the many citations and examples from the design field, with which they are probably unfamiliar. By the way, this comment is not only valid for Dunne's book, but for many others from the design field that I have reviewed.

On the other hand, I regard it as mandatory that HCI people look beyond their daily practice and take notice of the critique of their profession that is put forward by designers such as Anthony Dunne, irrespective of whether they agree with it or not. Often, HCI people motivate their work through a "humane touch" that they attach to it: They feel and act as proponents of the users – and are frustrated when technical and business issues dominate software application development. The designers' arguments, however, rip into the heart of the "humane" claim. They accuse the HCI community of striving for the optimal fit between man and technology and thereby eventually causing an uncritical assimilation of technology, which transcends the office and reaches out to every aspect of life. With respect to this critique, it does not matter whether the optimal fit is achieved by adapting people to technology, as is the technocratic way, or vice versa, as is the HCI way.

So, how should we handle this critique? I presume that each HCI practitioner will find an answer of his or her own. For my own part, I recently pointed out in my keynote at the University of Applied Science, Potsdam, that contrary to designers who build installations, works of art, or, like Anthony Dunne, para-functional objects, our profession does not want to make users "think" and brood about how a software application is to be used. Our professional goals are ease of use, efficiency, productivity, and a satisfying user experience. Designers, at least outside the context of commercial design, have different goals. They want to stimulate critical thought to make people think about their situation: and they want to stimulate poetical and unconstrained experiences beyond pure "satisfaction." Alienation (or estrangement) and para-functional objects are two of Anthony Dunne's approaches to stimulating experiences beyond an "optimal user experience." This difference in goals should not, however, preclude us from critically observing our work practices. Often, it seems as if they deal only with single users interacting with a software application – our task being to optimize this interaction. But – as Karen Holtzblatt demonstrated with her Contextual Design methodology – our work encompasses much more. We design work places, and our work may impact the whole physical, social, and cultural environment within a company. Thus, the HCI community has to admit its social and cultural responsibility and take it seriously. Books such as Anthony Dunne's Hertzian Tales remind us of our responsibility.

To sum up, given my reservations with respect to the "accessibility" of this book for user interface designers, I recommend it to the HCI community as a valuable critique of their profession put forth by designers, and as for using it as a source of inspiration for breaking new ground and trying alternative routes.

 

References

 

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