My Fair Lady

You’ve probably heard of or studied the Pygmalion Effect. Basically that peer expectation leads to either improvements or decline. The famous quote from the George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” (the movie My Fair Lady):

“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will, but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

I have been thinking about culture’s perception of the interaction designer vs. the film maker. This Pygmalion Effect seems to fit with my initial thoughts. As interaction designers, I think we are seen as the simple “flower girl”. In contrast, I think the film maker is definitely considered a “lady” in our culture, living in Hollywood and living the good life.

Why is this so? There was a short time there in the late 90’s when the programmers in Silicon Valley were getting close to becoming the “lady”. Hell, they were almost rock stars. But then the dot-com crash and shazam… we are seen as simple “flower girls” again. And we definitely have molded ourselves in this image. Where once we were gaining invites to parties everywhere, now we are back to our 9 to 5 jobs making computer applications for the common good. Simply providing a public service. We seemed to have lost our luster, the public perception gone. Now you might say that companies like Apple are seen as hip and cool, the “Fair Lady”. I would agree, but I don’t think it translates down to the actual interaction designers.

So how does this fit with creating a language of interaction design? Well, we all play the signal game. Meaning that we all have our prejudices and expectations. You can only relate to someone in your genre through language (signals), and understanding comes from the correct interpretation of the signals we pass between one another. That is how we can read the articles Jeff gives us and actually interpret them in the correct way, the way that relates to our culture as information scientists or informatics peeps.

To create a language for interaction design, we don’t only need a shared vocabulary between ourselves. We need a public perception that can relate to our cultural subset in a way that people now have begun to relate to technology itself.

As an example, my parents had no idea what I was studying at SLIS while I was getting my Master’s degree. But I could speak a shared language with them that they had picked up via their own cultural influences. I could say that I was interested in studying the way information was organized and shared on the internet using computers. They could understand that, they got it. Their expectations increased based on our shared vocabulary and therefore they expected me to do great things and have an exciting job. Therefore my own expectations increased and I was then (somehow) able to get a good job. A simple kind of Pygmalion Effect.

So, I think that we need to be cognizant of this effect while we are trying to define our language of interaction design. Although we may walk and talk like a “lady” with our new, fancy language, we may still be seen as the “flower girl”. And as it goes, the expectations of the culture may lead us to our continued, hidden existence.

I have no idea if this makes sense… it was in essence a mind puke.


  1. thismarty

    I hear you, tdbowman.

    I remember back in the late 90’s/early 2000’s when the “designers and artists” started to settle the digital design universe in numbers. Up until then, it seemed like interactive software dsign was more “engineer driven” but now, the field was falling all over itself to prop up big, flashy “rock stars” like Hillman Curtis, Joshua Davis and Yugo Nakamura.

    Fortunately, it seems like the pendulum has been swinging back a bit lately, with a more rational and much-needed emphasis being placed once again on “silly” things like functionality and utility.

    I think that a big problem with the interactive design world right now is that it wants to grow up to be the film/music industry. So many interaction designers (be they game deisgners, web designers, etc.) act more like frustrated filmmakers than interactive deisgners. We borrow aesthetics, business models, aesthetics, language, promotional and marketing schemes and on and on from the film and music industries, and all to the arguable detriment of our arguably arrested development, I think.

    IMHO, before the world at large takes us seriously as a profession, we need to demonstrate that we are indeed a unique practice. And even moreso, that we see ourselves that way.

  2. jimmypierce

    I hear ya, too. The notions of exoteric vs. esoteric discourse might be some language that helps clarify your thoughts about a language of interaction design. Esoteric discourse is how the domain experts talk about their domain..exoteric discourse is how they talk about it to non-experts. And I totally agree; for interaction design to gain morepublic recognition and success, it need to improve it’s exoteric discourse.


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