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    Attention Must Be Paid

    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.

    Attentive dogs by Flickr user Paddy Murphy; Distracted cyclist by Flickr user Mo Riza

    The flip side of attention is distraction. (attentive dogs by Flickr user PaddyMurphy; distracted cyclist by Flickr user moriza, both CC 2.0)

    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 appreciated.

    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 unknown.

    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 interesting.

    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 really is.

    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 of distraction.

    About the Author: 

    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.

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