no.30 vol.8 winter 1998

trial & error

The problem of the “problem-solving” approach to design is that it’s often too single-minded, too literal. It takes what meets the eye, or the analytic brain, at face value and translates it directly into a product. If this sounds too abstract, consider another way to put it. In his introduction to the seminal book on contemporary design, Design ist unsichtbar (Linz, Austria, 1981), critic Lucius Burckhardt related this little parable: To save five minutes and avoid smelly fingers, the onion cutter was invented. The problem with the onion cutter was that it took ten minutes to dissemble, clean and reassemble, which effectively annihilated the solutions to both problems tackled in designing the machine. From a designer’s perspective the new problem replaces the old, and the analysis would inevitably point to the new solution: the design of an onion-cutter-cleaning-machine. Ad infinitum. On the other hand, a less literal approach to the problem might result in the advice to go back to using the old kitchen knife, thereby curtailing the vicious circle of problem-solution-product-problem-etc.

Of course, this perfectly viable design solution wouldn’t bring the designer much reward, both in terms of fame or fortune. But Burckhardt’s story indicates two things, or two states of mind, that are extremely important to designers: the ability to think outside of routinely applied approaches, and the courage to be ridiculous. Both are essential to the notion of play.

It is a buzzword these days, play, and often used to characterise a fundamental aspect of design – of life – in our post-modern era, a worthy successor to the notion of irony that tagged the early 1990s, and that is becoming increasingly obsolete. Playing, on the other hand, is cool. Computergames offer templates for a wide range of communication products, from advertising to movies to interface design, and some of the most serious publications are desperately trying to look funny, playful...

But, although on the surface, our cultural environment may look like a children’s playground and our lives an endless series of games, in reality we are mostly going through the motions, following the rules of trends and fashion and accepting or mourning the outcome. To cheat is uncool, and to dissent or criticise is a breach of faith. Notwithstanding the general idea that we live in the most playful of all possible worlds, the ways in which we playhave more in common with the entrenched rituals of seasoned church goers than with the engaged curiosity of kids trying to find ways around the obvious. When playfulnessbecomes a prerequisite of cool design products, it petrifies into a protocol, and we, the observants, are in danger of becoming its keepers.

Playfulness, applied to the surface of things, often denies the true sense of the word, which is to explore for the sheer joy of it, and for the experience it can bring. The designer who applies a touch of playfulness to an otherwise purely rational product behaves like a “ magister ludi” – a schoolmaster.

But the old Latin equation between play and learning still has its value on a deeper level - playing can be a re-enactment of fundamental ways of learning. In some ways, actively solving a riddle can result in a more persistent experience than just memorising an answer. To design with this deeper meaning of play in mind, one has to look at not just the paraphernalia of play, but at the structure. Arranging information in a manner that enables the user to play with it in meaningful ways brings with it a rather different approach to the discursive or narrative structure behind the design. Especially in interactive media, as Andy Cameron has observed, “story time becomes real time, an account becomes an experience, the spectator or reader becomes a participant or player, and the narrative begins to look like a game.”

Imagine how such a change in the way information(of whichever kind) is communicated could affect the traditional ‘problem- solving’ approach of design. A designer – or a writer, editor, programmer or data-router for that matter – would not be formulating fixed answers anymore, nor providing established and singular paths through a narrative or an argumentation. One could say that the “problem-solver” of old would now put solving the “problem” in the hands of the audience, the reader or “user”. Designing in this context would mean making the design playable and the rules transparent – consistency remains a sine-qua-nonfor any design.

I feel that a controlled kind of open endedness and an insightful use of play can benefit even the most hard-core purpose-oriented interfaces or designs. Far from being elusive or dysfunctional, the “indeterminacy” that characterises play can help a reader to concentrate on the connections between data – when the answers are not given, the questions become of paramount importance.

Play and exploration are closely linked. When designing from an exploratory point of departure, an essential part of the act of signification shifts from author and designer to readers, who become players – and “winning” becomes understanding. Ideally reading and thinking can thus be actively connected by the fact that the reader has to analyse, before they can move on in the narrative or argumentation. I wonder whether a users’ manual for, say, a VCR or a washing machine, designed in this way (interactive, playful, game-like) could not be much more functional and both better understood and better memorised than its traditional unidirectional counterpart.

Obviously, not everything is jest and jolly, and not anything can be made into a game. But there is more to play – as activity – than mere merryness. To play is an intrinsically critical operation that questions all information the player is confronted with. The player asks: what if? And moves on by trial and error.

Questioning the meaning of things and situations, considering the possibilities for alternatives, checking the obvious against the obscure, all are essential to play. Once again, designers have to acknowledge that ordering information is not the last thing they do, and neither is playful decoration. “Enhancement of the message” (another one of those bedrock criteria for graphic designers) can sometimes mean that the message is made less accessible instead of directly proposed. At a time when contexts, references and interpretations often become more important than the raw data themselves, it’s the path towards it, that can contain the most valuable information… the real message, then, is how you access it.

max bruinsma