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MARCH 15, 2008    

Is it possible?

Is it possible posterFollowing a trail started by a Google Alert for “interactive design” I arrived at a link to a workshop/exhibition titled “Is it possible to touch someone's heart with design?”

My immediate response: “What a great question!”

Simply beautiful. Whether
the workshop was able to answer that question is unclear to me, but I'm sure the participants learned a lot wrestling with it. The workshop leader was design whiz kid/wild man Stefan Sagmeister, whose work can be both personal and intense. He once created a poster for a lecture he was giving by cutting the words into his own skin and photographing the result.

On his website Sagmeister has a brief answer to the question that points out two obstacles for the designer: 1) he/she is usually selling something, and 2) the viewer usually engages the design for a short time. These seconds or minutes don't allow the same kind of engagement compared to the time spent with music, film and books.

OK, #1 I can readily agree with. Of course it's possible to engage people emotionally in order to sell them something—good advertising does this constantly—but I think that most of the time we know we're being manipulated. Like a movie that's an obvious tear-jerker, the emotional tricks work but the results are superficial. Your heart hasn't really been touched.

Sagmeister's point #2—the length of time spent by the viewer—is less helpful in terms of answering the original question (Is it possible to touch someone's heart with design?). Maybe the problem is that designers don't know how to create work that will command peoples' attention for more than a few seconds. Maybe there's not enough depth of content. If so, isn't that our fault as designers?

My sense is that interactive media may provide the space where this might change. I think that with enough imagination (and work) we may be able to create computer-based interactive experiences that have the emotional depth of a symphony or a novel. To do that, though, we probably have to abandon #1 (selling something).

There are great Nike ads and BMW commercials that stir our emotions, but as soon as its obvious that the goal is to promote a brand (cue the logo) the device is shown for what it is. No matter how artfully done, it's a commercial.

On the other hand, if the goal has nothing to do with selling, is it Design? Maybe it's Art. We know that art can touch people's hearts, in fact that's almost the definition. It's too late at night (as I write this) to get into this discussion, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. Click on Comments below and add yours.

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MARCH 2008