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Greg Borenstein writes an interesting article delving into the manufactured normality of objects and experiences.  While illuminating the the Manufactured Normalcy Field, Greg reminds us just how un-normal it is to fly in an airplane, yet the experience for most people is completely commonplace.  It fades out of interest and becomes almost as normal as opening the refrigerator.  The normalcy of this experience is heavily controlled by the design choices made by the airline and the plane manufacturers: smaller windows keep you from seeing you are a mile from the ground, carpeting and clever lighting remind you of any generic commercial space, etc.  Greg argues that designer has power over taking the design in and out of normalcy.  For as normal as you can make an experience or product, you can also “weird” it out with design choices that dislodge it from the background of everyday life and making it note worthy once again.


The success of a manufactured object in the commercial realm can entirely depend on this element of design.  Some products are best faded out view of the everyday for example toilet paper or a dictionary other objects may need to be weird to the point of intrigue like a furby you just can’t stop looking at because it blinks and quacks at you.  You buy the furby, but you do not need the furby.  +1 for furby.


Greg then gets a little deeper into the abstract and looks at objects on an equal playing field, comparing them solely by their relation to one another; object oriented ontology is a name for this sort of comparison.  He talks about the experience of objects in another article “what its like to be an object in the 21st Century” and I can’t help but notice a strange turn towards anthropomorphism.  I’m not sure taking objects out of the social order in which they were created and giving them their own lives and identities, especially secret lives according to the speculative realists, is really going to help us understand the things that we create as we move onward into the future.  This whole philosophical tangent comes out of Greg’s desire to re-imagine the New Aesthetic research performed by James Bridle which is a very interesting collection of future objects and “now” objects.


Looking at this collection of ideas, prototypes and real objects that all relate to the new way of seeing the world brings me back the notion of designing for the manufactured normalcy field.  As we create new classes of objects–objects and experiences that truly never existed before (my favorite being a camera that sits on the hearth and takes pictures of the party for you!)–we have to also create the metal map for how they work in our lives and make the design choices that will allow them, no matter how weird, to fit comfortably into society.  I don’t agree with the object oriented ontologists and the speculative realists about how we understand these things though, all things are not created equally.   Objects don’t have identities, people have identities and project them into the things we create and use.  Those speculative realists say that two objets that relate to each other won’t ever really know each other, which is only true in the sense that the person who experiences or creates those objects won’t ever really know what the world is like outside of his or her own experience of it.


When thinking about design and innovation, as hard as you try you cannot take the ego out of the equation.  All you can ever really know is what is normal for you, which is a great case for play-testing EVERYTHING.




SIDE NOTE:  Greg also helped me realize that Plato was the original programmer.  His universal abstractions are classes.  The chair is just an instance of class “Chair” and its shape is merely an attribute of this instance. WTF Plato…why didn’t YOU come up with processing??


8 comments to DESIGNING FOR AND AGAINST THE MANUFACTURED NORMALCY FIELD – designing for me, myself and I

  • Mike, did you get a chance to experience Allie and my PARTYVATOR midterm for PComp?

    I think Greg Borenstein’s argument about flying in an airplane could be applied to an elevator too. Should we really be in a metal box moving up and down a shaft, trusting the structural integrity of those steel cables? And just like an airplane you could argue the normalcy of this experience is heavily controlled by the design choices made by the elevator manufacturer.

    It’s fun to disrupt this, and if you don’t scare people you can make them happy. For a while. Even the new objects we create will eventually become part of normalcy, even if they are engineered to not be normal.

    What are your feelings on un-normalcy fatigue?

  • mpa292

    Hi Tom!

    I got to see your play test video…definitely a party!

    To me this philosophy is fleeting: once design of any kind enters the world, the more it is known the more “normal” it becomes. Everything will eventually fade into the static and become part of everything else.

    I don’t think you can design something that will be un-normal forever, in the sense that Greg is talking about. The fatigue is just part of the cycle. This way of thinking about design is something more like designing for attention and once that specific attention is drawn, the goal is reached. What happens after doesn’t really matter.

    Deschamps Urinal is a good example of that. It would never have the same impact now that it has happened.

    It does seem that a good un-normalcy can really change what normal means for everyone.

    As for un-normalcy fatigue on the whole, I would say complacency is not a virtue, would you agree?

  • William Lindmeier

    It seems like the trend with elevator and airplane design has been more toward the “normal” / comfortable and away from their inherent nature. In other words, the normalizing designs are part of the ongoing acceptance of the objects, not just their initial introduction into our lives. That seems kind of odd if you believe that once we accept the novelty of an object it becomes normal to us. Perhaps there’s a limit to how comfortable we want to get with some objects. Anyway, it makes me wonder how these things would be designed if we weren’t trying to normalize them. What would the Platonic ideal airplane design look like? Probably bigger windows.

  • Nancy

    Objects do condition us, change our behavior, right? So in a way they do have strong identities. Unmovable ones. Like maybe in your family “if mama aint’ happy, no one is happy.’ So you modify your behavior to please mama. So much of tech requires us to alter our behavior to please it.

    Normal/not normal. Alan Kay said, ‘Technology is all those things invented after you were born.” So we don’t even think of pencils, papers, turning the pages of books not to mention TV, switching on the lights as marvels.

    In the 70’s I worked on a project with an industrial designer on airplane interiors. It turned out that blue was absolutely the worse color to put inside a plane, b/c it was like the sky, like the ocean you might disappear into, it was cold, and made people fearful. So for the client, we suggested lots of warm tropical colors ( like you might be on your way to Bali, la la la) The client was Braniff Airlines. So they painted their planes and jazzed up their interiors. Turns out, people were so conditioned to blue, after all, that they found it relaxing no matter what the data showed. We can be conditioned to almost anything.

  • Nancy

    This is from Valerie Chen’s post on The Street of Crocodiles:

    I think objects often endear themselves to us (through utility, daily interaction, aesthetic) and become alive and take on anthropomorphized characteristics in our minds. What are your thoughts on objects becoming characters in our lives?

    You should talk!

  • Thank you for your post Mike as this really made me think of the user interaction. Up to how much do we make the user unconventional yet not too uncomfortable or too normal but not to a point where it’s boring? You are absolutely right about how everyone can have different idea of what “normal” is or the adaptation level. Is a good designer someone who pushes the boundaries or the one who really understands the user and make them comfortable?
    Also in tems of anthropomorphism, you are right in a sense that people have identities and project them into the things we create and use. However, why would it be bad to have objects with identities when we are doing it already on so many things? Wouldn’t the objects help our lives better if they were to understand us better?

  • Xuedi "Chen"

    Your observations are all interesting and it totally reminds me of Nathan Shedroff’s talk about “futuristic” interfaces in sci-fi. Here are some visionaries designing fictional interfaces for the future, 500 years away, and yet they tend to look and function like technology of the times. It’s not that the artists lack the vision to imagine something REALLY out of the ordinary and truly futuristic, they have to find a way to tie it back to the “manufactured normalcy” to relate to the audience, to their comfort zone.
    I think that’s also one of the reasons behind the anthropomorphized objects. Perhaps it gives more headway for truly innovative design like the world has never seen, but it ties back to the human comfort zone by imbuing them with anthropomorphic characteristics. Maybe it’s intentional design, but maybe it’s just a loophole.

  • Jay

    This discussion about Platonic ideals brings to mind skeuomorphism in design. As more and more things become a sub-class of Class Computer, rather than an object in their own right, what, if anything, is lost? Is the appearance of a thing a satisfactory substitute for the original thing itself – which can be considered, understood, and potentially repaired.

    and does efficiency enter the equation?

    or, what does all this stuff look like if speech becomes part of the new norm (Siri, microwave the popcorn, please and thank you) Do I want my lamp to say goodnight?