Just as products and spaces suggest what people will do with them, words define how we discuss things. In his book, Home, Witold Rybczynski wrote that people didn’t know they could be comfortable until someone said they, “Hey, I’m feeling uncomfortable!” By creating the word “comfort,” they also defined a new concept. I feel that designers need a word to describe how successful things fit people’s bodies as well as their minds. Since “ergonomics” governs the functional/practical relationship between the human body and the object, I have a name for the psychological relationships between the human mind and the stuff we make: “Psychonomics.”
One of the foundations of industrial design is ergonomics. The science helps us understand the way the human body works and calibrate the differences in body capabilities so that we can produce things that fit peoples’ bodies. Psychology has shown that people’s inner emotions affect behavior–that thinking applies to people’s interaction with things. Designers, the formgivers, have always paid as much attention to psychology as to physics–but we never had a word for it. Psychonomics makes the spirit apparent.
The word “psychonomics” may conjure the image of industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss taking a shower in Alfred Hitchcock’s Bates Motel. Psychonomics is more than a new name for the old sciences concerned with the mind/body dichotomy. Psychonomics necessarily combines psychology, anthropology, semiotics, history, pop culture, and art. It is a holistic approach to exploring how the human mind envisions, understands and copes with things in its environment. It ponders why a beautiful chair seems more comfortable than an ugly one or why rubber fins make a peeler seem more fun. Most importantly for me, it can clarify the fuzzy area between art and science where designers work.
Cognition, language, beliefs, emotions plus our five senses mix together to form a psychological relationship between object and user–it can be a good, bad, happy or sad relationship–and it can build a bond or create friction. Unlike a scary movie, the goal of a great design is to harness positive psychonomics to build a good connection with the users of the products. And meaning–the mental tag–is the key to connecting psychologically with the stuff we make.
Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” meaning the way you think affects the way you understand. Psychonomic designers see that the way you think also affects the function of things. Just as people need a physical handle to pick up a frying pan, they also need a different kind of handle in order to connect their minds to their fried eggs in the pan. And that’s where the designer comes in. It doesn’t matter if the interface is physical or virtual; the designer’s job is to create the relationship between the person and the object-machine-environment-situation-activity-game-software-whatever.
Psychonomics can clarify the fuzzy area between art and science where designers work.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, ergonomics is “an applied science concerned with the characteristics of people that need to be considered in designing and arranging things that they use in order that people and things will interact most effectively and safely; called also human engineering.” Currently, designers use ergonomic information to make desk chairs more comfortable, CAD machines easier to control, and tasks more efficient. Graphic interface designers use information theory and narrative to organize web pages, GUIs, or 3-D CAD software.
But isn’t there more to life (and design) than comfort, efficiency, speed, and safety? Why do Scandinavians jump naked into holes cut in frozen lakes in the middle of the winter? Why do people enjoy riding roller coasters, throwing rice at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or beating video games? People are looking for value from products, software, and experiences and value is more than just function, ease of use, and price. Value is measured on other scales like entertainment, reward, or self-identity. For designers to succeed, we have to make things work on many complex and contradictory levels. At the end of the day, a successful project has to provide connections that people consider “valuable” and “meaningful.”
Physically and psychonomically!
Tangible and intangible: in heads and in hearts!