In the funereal requiem to Arthur Miller's Death of a
Salesman, Linda Loman plaintively cries, "Attention must be
paid!" Among the most moving lines in the play, its poignancy
derives from the fact that the speaker is a woman to whom attention
was never paid and never would be. But, ripped out of context, it
would make a perfect working credo for designers who are tired of
Form Follows Function or Less Is More. "Attention must be paid" is
the cardinal rule of design discipline, for the designer is above
all someone who pays attention to the situation at hand. This
disciplinary requirement has not changed at all in the evolution of
design. To be sure, the various situations at hand have changed
radically and continue to change; but attention remains the
irreducible minimum of design obligation.
The flip side of attention is distraction. (attentive dogs by
PaddyMurphy; distracted cyclist by Flickr user
moriza, both CC
Paying attention is the ultimate payoff. For a consumer there is
no more satisfying experience than the discovery that a designer
has produced something that, as Quakers say, "speaks to your
condition" by attending to a need you did not know anyone else
understood, and that you may yourself never have expressed. This
happens rarely, but that it happens at all is an occasion for joy.
Since designers are themselves consumers, the joy is universally
So the responsibility to pay attention begets a reciprocal
commitment. Consumers have a corresponding responsibility to do
more than simply admire a design and rise to it. Design fulfillment
calls for a deeper level of possession. A car, however perfectly
fashioned, is not really a finished product without an owner-driver
who keeps it running smoothly and follows the rules of the road.
The user's attention differs from the designer's, but is no less
critical. Both call for what Akiko Busch recently described as
"attentiveness to uncertainty," a delight in the adventure of the
In a sense—and only in a sense—the flip side of attention is
distraction. The term flip side originally referred to the
side of a vinyl record that was not the one you bought it for.
Surprisingly, often this turns out be the side you listen to most,
and this, I suppose, is comparable to the experience of visiting
Google in search of a particular item and becoming absorbed for
hours in things you weren't looking for but that are at least as
But more than just side B, distraction is a turning from
attention for purposes that vary widely. We all crave it at times
as an escape from boredom or duty. In the form of daydreaming it is
one of life's pleasant getaway routes. It can also be a
manipulative device, useful and benign if you're a performing
magician. Or if you're trying to keep a loved one, or even a liked
one, from finding out about the surprise party you're organizing in
their honor. It is also a most sinister and effective instrument of
the common con. Both three-card monte and shell games use sleight
of hand to distract the mark from seeing where the card or the pea
Ironically, in some cases the attentiveness of the designer may
actually contribute to the diminution of consumer attention. Every
mobile communication device, for example, represents the attentive
effort of many kinds of designers; but their use often facilitates
its opposite.A BlackBerry empowers me to do a great many things.
One of them is to text while moving, disregarding both vehicular
and pedestrian traffic. Admittedly, neither the device nor the
motion is a prerequisite for distraction; a desktop will serve. And
distraction is of course only one aspect of texting, which
generally has quite a different goal. The person who looks neither
to the right nor the left while crossing an intersection might in
fact be paying very close attention to something or someone—just
not at the time or in the place where he or she is. The new-age
guru Baba Ram Dass instructed his disciples, "Remember, be here
now." Rarely has an injunction seemed more urgent.
This was once thought to be none of the designer's business. All
the attention her job called for stopped with the toaster or the
poster. Today, however, the global reach of design—not just in the
global economy but the increasingly global cultural
interdependence—calls for another level of accountability. Because
designers know this, design is more than ever concerned with
crucial environmental and social issues. We know that attention
must be paid. If only we knew how to direct it to the consequences
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
What do design and magic have in common? Caplan reveals the shared practice of “what you don’t see is what you get.”
Section: Inspiration -
Voice, packaging, strategy
Since when is empathy a bad thing? Caplan defends the quality in designers and why it’s good to relate personally to your work.
Section: Inspiration -
Voice, design thinking, experience design, user research
What is service design? Heller asks interaction designer Phi-Hong D. Ha to describe the skills needed and challenges posed by this emerging field.
Section: Inspiration -
interview, Voice, experience design, service design, user research
With so many messages vying for attention, is anyone being heard? Twigg describes how doing less can accomplish more.
Section: Inspiration -
Voice, graphic design, strategy
Preserving the perspectives and experiences of those individuals that have defined AIGA since its inception in 1914, is only one side of the equation that defines succession planning. During AIGA's Presdents call last month, Liz Magura, current AIGA Arizona chapter President, and Niki Blaker, former chapter President and Incoming Presidents Council Chair, shared some of their best practices about succession planning.
it is paramount for designers to be not only expert in design theories and technology, to be able to rapidly learn, but also to be knowledgeable of the past.
Gallagher & Associates
Elaine Lustig Cohen
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