The Design of Communication

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How do we communicate through design? How does design communicate to us?

Let’s start with the Xbox Controller. It is comfortable, the colored buttons are distinguishable, the shoulder buttons, the triggers, the directional pads, the joysticks all have their respective areas. Each has their particular function and allows the handler to perform different moves. These controllers are well designed affordances; they serve as communication devices, from the designer to the consumer and then the consumer to the video game.

So if you’ve ever played Halo, you probably know the trigger buttons are found on the left and right of the controller, where your hands naturally grip. It’s been awhile since the trigger button have been the A Button, found on the faceplate of early Nintendo controllers. However, some can’t seem to grasp aiming and running at the same time… but that’ another issue, noobs.

Shifting gears…when was the last time you were in a shower? Hopefully this morning or last night… unfortunately some people in Austin haven’t quite grasped that concept. What was the first thing you did? You made sure you had a clean towel, a decent bar of soap (I use a body wash, bars are gross, but for this story a bar must be used…) and some shampoo and conditioner. I have the two-in-one bottle, awesome.

While performing your brief mental checklist, you found your items to be just where you left them, in their designated spots. Some people may have shower caddies hanging from their shower head, or built-in shelves in the corner, even an elevated step or tile seat opposite the shower head. The shampoo and other cleansing bottles are usually found here. Assuming you have bar soap, it too has a designated location, a spot in your shower designed specifically for bar soap. That little metal tray affords support for small, solid objects but not for liquids, thus illustrating the positive affordance of support and the negative affordance of leakiness. It tells the user to place something fitting on this platform, a useful item that requires support and will not spill. Plus the dish is specially designed to allow for draining while keeping the soap bar secure. It is fair to assume that the average showerer will be comfortable with the various design features of a shower and understand their purposes. If you don’t have a good place for your bar of soap and you just put it wherever… shame.

Designed affordances are the visual clues to the function of an object as communication.

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Another example could be the archive of icons and short-cuts on your Windows or Apple desktop. Certain icons afford the use of specific functions. Menus have pertinent colors and programs that are typically separated by brand or logo. Some programs provide complex and learned affordances, like Photoshop and Illustrator. The pro-grams are excellent, but one has to take time and learn the communication or language of these programs. They are not simple like a Recycle Bin, because their systems are vast in purpose. So how does one go about learning this? There are videos, books, and my personal favorite trial and error (just start clicking stuff, only way to learn these I swear).

There are some products and systems that have become affordance failures in their respective circles. The affordance of an object is based on a unified relationship between form and function. Affordances are the real and alleged qualities of an object that illustrate the object’s purpose.

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One of my favorite Far Sides.

A common example is a long horizontal bar across the breadth of a door as opposed to a small handle aligned on the right of a door. The long horizontal bar suggests that the door should be pushed (it’s too heavy and awkward to push or pull), however the small handle does not reveal with certainty whether the door should be pushed or pulled.

Back in 1992, Microsoft released Windows 3.1x, one of the first graphical user interfaces for the home PC. Although it brought Microsoft worldwide success, it also had major design flaws. Consumers reported the following difficulties: they couldn’t manage overlap-ping windows, they didn’t understand putting folders inside folders, they couldn’t physically double-click the mouse, and the average person took 10 minutes to open an application. So great. But companies like Microsoft will continue to perform in their market because they embrace their mistakes and learn from them… for the most part.

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Let’s look at OXO.

OXO is an established and highly successful kitchen supply company. If people have trouble defining value in design, tell them this story…

OXO International was founded in 1989 by Sam Farber. Sam had a wife, she had arthritis. She had trouble using kitchen utensils. Sam was tired of seeing his wife in pain and focused on creating new handle designs and improving the overall quality of the components found on exist-ing utensils.

When Sam approached kitchen supply companies, none of them were interested in functionality, just packaging and retail displays. So Sam and his ideas went to Smart Design, a design consultancy, to produce an innovative family of kitchen utensils. The line was to be targeted toward a broad set of people; this required a lot of research. Home users, chefs and other special groups (people with arthritis) were interviewed. The design team then established a new brand name, Good Grips. Multi-purposed handles, measuring devices and squeezing tools were produced each affording ease of use. Anyways, I could go on about this. Basically, functionality was not overlooked. With form and function existing in harmony accompanied by rubber handles and stainless steel, they had a kitchen line ready to take on the competition (or remove it).

Since OXO’s 20 original Good Grips debuting in 1990, hundreds of products have been produced. From OXO’s initial turnover of $3 million in 1991 and growing by 50% each year since then, well you do the math. Design set this company apart; its success was not only understanding the consumer’s needs but helping out a woman with arthritis.

Sam wanted his wife happy.

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It’s ancestors were called ‘dust busters’

Dyson’s first product was the sea truck in 1970. The sea truck’s purpose was to transport supplies such as food, livestock and building supplies from island to island. The captains (or drivers) not sure what to call them, would puncture the halls of these trucks on the rough island shore rocks. When brainstorming how to plug holes, he came across water piping that ballooned when cracked.

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The plastic formation was later researched and adapted to the award winning Ballbarrow in 1974. See anything familiar? When painting the Ballbarrow frames, powder coating particles would constantly clog the air filter, Dyson immediately connected this to a vacuum cleaner’s dust bag clogging and loosing suction. One day after work a young and adventurous Dyson jumped the fence of a Cyclone Mill Plant and sketched how a cyclone got rid of air and debris. 5 years and 5,127 prototypes later, Dyson won the 1991 International Design Fair prize in Japan with his innovative bagless cyclone vacuum.

This was the first time in over 90 years someone had changed vacuum cleaner technology. Over the next ten years Dyson founded the Dyson Company selling 300 million Euros worth of units a year. October of 2003, Dyson brought his technology to the American market to only further his success.

Dyson created a product by reevaluating how preexisting technology could work in other adaptations. He didn’t invent the ball or the cyclone; he integrated technology into an innovation.

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