In dialog surrounding the reviews of a recent paper a colleague and I submitted, one of the reviewers, resisting our call for a greater emphasis on criticism in interaction design on the grounds that psychology already does it, asked the following question:
How can you prevent the “anything-goes-subjectivism” when the judgments are not objective?
This is the kind of question that drives me–and I think anyone trained in the humanities–crazy. My immediate reaction is that this question is both naive and bigoted, not merely privileging that person’s own scientific background, but categorically excluding the possibility of intellectual contribution from anywhere in the liberal arts (art history, literary criticism, fashion design, philosophy, music, film, etc.).
But after some reflection, I realized that my reaction isn’t good enough. Here’s why:
The reviewer asking the question is an assistant professor of design at a prestigious university. This reviewer is not an idiot or a jerk; this is a person who understands how his own epistemological underpinnings lead to intellectual contribution via a proven “science of design” approach built around prototypes, scientific evaluation, and iteration. What’s missing is an understanding of how alternative epistemologies are productive of intellectual contribution that may be relevant to his own area. In other words, I doubt (at least I hope it’s not the case) that this reviewer would literally assert that the arts are categorically useless on grounds of their subjectivism. And yet, his stance on knowledge leaves little room for anything but that. As someone who advocates integrating humanist approaches, and in particular criticism, into interaction design, I realize I have a burden (fair or unfair; it doesn’t matter) to make my position at least comprehensible to people from these other traditions.
This blog is a very early attempt at developing that rhetoric.
Perhaps I should start with the word “judgment.” The reviewer asks how a judgment can be meaningful if it is not objective. My own intuitive response is that if it is objective, then how can it even be called a “judgment”? To me, judgment is what happens when an expert in a phenomenon that cannot be comprehensively or rationally understood–such as the human response to a work of art, and all the poetic and social relationships implied therein–makes informed statements about the quality, worth, and/or nature of that phenomenon.
Consider this simple example: a respected film critic says that a new film is excellent. Should we trust this film critic’s opinion over that of a friend or colleague (who is not in the film industry)? I think most of us do. And yet, this film critic has not conducted an empirical study and acquired objective data about the film. The judgment was grounded on her or his own subjective response, which has been reflected upon in light of both theory of film and systematic, professional encounters with thousands of other films. Here is a different example. How does National Geographic know whether a photo is worthy to be included on its pages? Surely the editors do not conduct a scientific review; rather, they have an eye for what makes a “National Geographic quality” picture. But what does that mean, to “have an eye for”? It’s a subjective judgment, so it’s not scientific. But if it’s anything-goes, then the only thing that could explain National Geographic’s success in publishing top quality photos is astronomically good luck.
Now I’d like to offer a couple examples that are more explicitly design-oriented. Both of the following are quotes from an introductory book on fashion, Icons of Fashion: The 20th Century, edited by Gerda Buxbaum (Prestel). The first quote below refers to Austrian designer Helmut Lang:
Whether masculine-cut or futuristically transparent women’s suits, whether utilitarian, rebelliously elegant, Day-Glo striped, or cuffed jeans, Helmut Lang’s clothes set the tone for the 1990s. He is among the true fashion inventors of the twentieth century, and his designs provoke irritation because they are often ahead of their time. Lang’s fashions frequently point to major social changes before their initial tremors can be felt: the nomadic image of globalization,the scars and triumphs of women’s liberation, the fusion of American and European culture, the yearning for simplicity, and the desire for luxury. All of these are evoked for us, sharply and beautifully, in Lang’s clothes. “I don’t believe fashion evolves on its own,” he once said. “There are more radical social changes behind it.”
Clearly, Lang is a successful designer, by any reasonable definition of the term. Equally clearly, his visionary work neither deploys nor is evaluated by any sort of “science of design” (at least the visionary part; aspects of its execution are likely informed by prototypes and market data). His understandings of social changes and future trends cannot be objective. And those who judge the quality of his work, from the fashion industry and corporate buyers to the consumer, do not do so on the basis of any objective data collection. Yet his success reveals that in the subjective judgment of thousands, his work is not only very good, but it is very good in particular ways. Lang is perennially successful at being “fashion forward,” a term that is cognitively empty in the scientific sense (really, it means just about nothing), and yet pervasively used in fashion to name the je ne sais quoi that makes a garment or accessory just feel right to thousands, if not millions.
Here’s how the same book introduces the work of John Galliano:
The historicism and romanticism of John Galliano’s designs are rivaled only by the spectacular and theatrical nature of his fashion shows. One of the great image-makers of the twentieth century, he is largely responsible for the media feeding frenzy which has typified the coverage of collections in the 1990s. Compared to France, the infrastructure in of the British fashion industry is less developed, so a spectacular show may be a designer’s only passport to media coverage.
If this paragraph is reasonably accurate, then Galliano is more successful at constructing reality than he is at discovering it. In other words, what Galliano does is not empirically determine what taste looks like at a moment in time and then design for it. Rather, using exotic marketing and glamourous imagery, he constructs a feeling that did not exist before, and consumers who engage with it start to want it. He is not finding demand, but rather creating it. This is science fiction, in a sense. The designer speculates, constructs a fantasy, and then uses a combination of tangible designs (here: clothes) and showmanship to generate consumer demand for his designs. Again, the question is, if it is all speculation and fantasy construction, and if that’s anything-goes, then any of us should be as good as Galliano. But we know very few actually are. There is a method, a rigor to Galliano’s speculative fantasy constructions; it is learned, cultivated, and nurtured. But it is not scientific.
One might object that the sort of fantasy construction I am talking about here belongs to the province of art, and really science has nothing to do with that. But I am talking about designers, not fine artists. Galliano, Lang, National Geographic, and so forth do not have the luxury to make art that pleases them and a microcommunity of like-minded intellectuals. They are all major players in the marketplace. Their speculations and fantasies must be able to gain traction at a sufficient scale to support their businesses. In short, their work is “serious” in the same way that interaction design is serious: it has to work for, be of value to, and feel right to their everyday end users.
I hope I have drawn a boundary between mere opinion and expert (subjective) judgment. Expert subjective judgment entails a lengthy, reflective, intellectual encounter with thousands of instances of similar cultural artifacts. It is a capacity to appreciate how the subtle mechanics of those artifacts, from the meter of a poem to rack and pinion mechanism of an oranger juicer’s arm, directly connect to felt experiences that are engaging, joyful, and even enlightening. This capacity has always been a part of design–industrial design, fashion design, architectural design, visual communications design–and it is an unfortunate commentary on our field that it has yet to be legitimated, much less developed, in interaction design.