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The following text was originally published as
Michl, J. "Väkevä, Seppo, ed. Product Semantics '89. Helsinki 1990; Vihma, Susann, ed. Semantic Visions in Design. Helsinki 1990."
Scandinavian Journal of Design History 2 (1992): 123-7.

A review
of two
product semantics
conference proceedings

Seppo Väkevä, ed. Product Semantics '89:
Proceedings from the Product Semantics '89 Conference 16.-19. 5. 1989
at the University of Industrial Arts Helsinki UIAH.

Helsinki: Publications of the University of Industrial Arts UIAH A4, 1990.

Susann Vihma, ed. Semantic Visions in Design:
Proceedings from the Symposium on Design Research and Semiotics 17.-18. 5. 1989
at University of Industrial Arts Helsinki UIAH.

Helsinki: Publications of the University of Industrial Arts UIAH A7, 1990.

Reviewed by

:1: The theory and practice of product semantics which caught the attention of designer community in the 1980s is an attempt to find a new theoretical foundation for design after the recent break-down of faith in functionalism. Since the 1920s the effort of functionalists concentrated on bringing about what they thought of as objective design, i.e. forms independent of the the aesthetic preferences of customers as well as those of their own. The functionalist designers meant they were entrusted with a historic mission to meet, after decades of historicisms and eclecticisms, the new epoch's need for an authentic aesthetic - amidst customers hankering after revival styles. The functionalist program proved so appealing to architects and designers mainly because in its theory it replaced the traditional duty of catering for customers' tastes, with a much more exciting, though fanciful, responsibility for the alleged aesthetic needs of one's own epoch. The fancy vision of an epoch aching after its own artistic expression gave the designer right, and freedom, to turn his back on the customer. This freedom, until then granted only to artists, led in its consequences to creation of a sophisticated but highly exclusive modernist aesthetic. Product semantics, no doubt inspired by similar efforts in architecture a decade or two ago, is attempting now to bring the customer back into the theory. It makes use of the conceptual framework of the difficult science of semantics, which studies meanings as expressed in language, in order to create a more inclusive, meaning-centered design theory, and aesthetic.

:2: The conference and symposium on design semantics which resulted in the above two volumes, were arranged by one of the most internationally active design schools in Scandinavia (if not the most active), the University of Industrial Arts in Helsinki, led by its wonderfully enterprising dean Yrjö Sotamaa. Its proceedings are but two of a long line of the school's design-related publications in Finnish, Swedish, German, and English which the institution has published since the mid 1980s.

:3: The conference volume presents design semantics as formulated by its US/German "founding fathers" - as these designers are amicably called on the book jacket. Dean Sotamaa indeed managed to collect as his key-note speakers the key figures which were active within the field since the early 1980s.

:4: With regard to the expected novelty of approach the conference volume is, however, disappointingly ambiguous. It seems to be informed by two opposite tendencies: on the one hand by the effort to establish a philosophy of respect for the consumer's world, on the other by the almost instinctive effort to salvage rests of the designer's former freedom acquired under modernism. These two conflicting impulses give sometime impression that design semantics, at least as presented here, is a new, more sophisticated version of the traditional modernist idea of design on designer's own terms - rather than on the user's own terms. At any rate it is hard to see why the design semantics of the founding fathers would merit description of a "major paradigm shift" (as one speaker put it).

:5: Before giving some more substance to these critical observations, let me first commend two ready-to-use applications of the semantic theory offered in this volume. (The reader may also gain insight into practical application of product semantics in short reports from four design workshops, conducted after the conference under the direction of key-note speakers.)

:6: Reinhart Butter, the US designer who is credited with coining the term "product semantics", describes in his well-written straightforward text on The Practical Side of a Theory an eight-step semantic approach to product development, and illustrates it by his undergraduate student project, the design of a truck cabin interior and its interface. He summarizes the whole process in three basic steps, which consist in choice of the intended character of the product, listing attributes, and search for visual expressions of these attributes. He discusses also other two projects in view of the same method.

:7: Hans-J�rgen Lannoch's paper Towards a Semantic Notation of Space presents a witty and poetic, sensitivity raising exercise for design students which he calls semantic transfer. By this not very poetic term he means an exploration of space-related adjectives (i.e. words such as "standing", pushable", "clutchable", etc.) aiming at their "transfer" into three-dimensional forms.

:8: As far as theory is concerned the papers in the conference volume move between two extremes: too much theory - or too little theory. On the one hand there is the purely theoretical article Product Semantics: A Triangulation and Four design Theories by Klaus Krippendorff, who aims at providing insight into the philosophy behind the semantic approach to design. Although he does succeed, his is still an unnecessarily difficult text replete with enigmatic charts and forbidding academic cant, which I believe repels rather than attract the designers who happen not to have a PhD.

:9: The other texts, though better written, are fairly tame as far as theory goes. The new and fresh ideas which all articles contain, tend to land in the familiar modernist mold. Although the traditional aesthetic moralism and besserwisser attitude is in no way advertised (often it is relegated to a side remark) the reader is in one way or another always reminded that when all is said and done the designer is still the one who knows best what is good for the user.

:10: I perceive this in Lannoch' remark, when he in passing mentions his fear that semantics could be used "to seduce people into buying products which nobody really wants"; it is not difficult to recognize here the vintage modernist idea of "real needs", an intimation that it is up to the designer to rule which of other people's needs qualify as real and which do not.

:11: The conspicuous absence of the two perennially popular modes of design, historicisms and antropomorphisms in the presented student projects and their predominantly abstract aesthetics, makes one suspect that designers still go on working on their own terms. Michael McCoy in his article The Post Industrial Designer: Interpreter of Technology, seemingly revising the modernist theory, proclaims all the same a hoary modernist belief when he writes that "To mask [technology] by casting it into forms referring to the pre-industrial era would be retrogressive and sentimental".

:12: Reinhart Butter for his part still embraces the idea of aesthetic honesty in design: he wants the expressive, semantic attributes in products to be identical with the factual ones, a demand which leads him to censure as dishonest or fake the tail fins and air scoops of the US cars of the fifties for suggesting aerodynamics and performance.

:13: On the whole Krippendorff's, Butter's, Lannoch's and McCoy's articles exude the traditional modernist ambivalence about the fact that industrial designers have to work within the commercial culture - an uneasiness that has its roots in the utopian fancy that industrial design can somehow exist above, or apart from, commerce. (Such uneasiness is not in the paper by Robert Blaich, the only non-teacher among key-note speakers. He has a sympathetically down-to-earth attitude to product semantic, which behoves a director of Philips' Corporate industrial Design. But neither Philips' or other firm's products indicate any marked deviation from the orbit of abstract aesthetics.)

:14: In view of all this it is not surprising to find that most of the authors in the conference volume still see modernism through modernists' own eyes; they still make use of the now ritual phrase which functionalists used since the twenties to explain how their forms came about - namely that forms are (in one way or another) results of functions. Krippendorff for example, in comparing design semantics to previous design practices, formulates his first rule of the new semantic approach as "enabling users to make sense of things". That commendable rule is contrasted with the previous one allegedly consisting in "making forms to follow required functions". Such time-honored but ill-reasoned interpretation of the nature of functionalism is used also by other authors when they enlarge upon the phenomenon of miniaturization. They claim (as almost all designers do today) that since the microelectronic components have minimal volume and their shape does not relate to any mechanical function it is no longer possible to let forms follow functions (or whatever other way one may put it). This, according to Lannoch "suspends the basic principle of design that form must be related to function". McCoy puts it more strongly still, writing that "microelectronics and new materials have finally liberated designers from the dictation of form by mechanical function." There is of course no doubt that miniaturization has changed the nature of products, and that the old functionalist theory did turn out to be patently unfeasible in this new situation. The point is, however, that the functionalist theory of design has never been feasible - neither before nor after miniaturization - having been no more than a thick smoke screen hiding silent exercise of an aesthetic of designer's own liking. The arrival of miniaturization then did not put an end to the process of forms following functions - rather it knocked out an until then powerful alibi that made it easy for designers to fool themselves into believing that they were giving form to products independently of their own aesthetic preferences.

:15: To conclude: the failure to see the real nature of the modernist aesthetics mars the valuable attempts to overcome its shortcomings.


:16: The second volume presents papers from the symposium which was arranged after the conference parallel with design workshops. The twelve papers in this symposium volume are divided into two groups, one reserved for more general problems, the other for more concrete ones.

:17: The articles devoted purely to semiotics, written by Horst Oehlke, Susann Vihma and Seppo Väkevä respectively, have three things in common: they are all both well informed, critical - and rather academic. They all point out, with implied or open criticism of founding fathers, that semantics, dealing with meaning, is only one of three subdivisions of semiotics, the general science of signs; the other two of these subdivisions, syntactics (study of 'grammar') and pragmatics (study of usage), are more or less ignored in the present concept of design semantics; all three articles indicate why this is wrong. Both Vihma and Väkevä also refer to the important earlier explorations into the semiotics of architecture, which seem to be, strangely enough, ignored by the founding fathers. Both authors also formulate important reservations, both as to some concepts and scope of design semiotics.

:18: The drawback of these theoretical articles is that although they all discuss relevant questions they do so in a way which makes it accessible more to insiders than outsiders. This is not a fault by itself but in a volume addressed to non-academic public it seems to be a problem: to the fresh reader who hopes to learn about design semiotics, the somewhat esoteric air of the articles is probably frightening. So are all the notions which the authors introduce without stopping to explain them, as if it terms like semiocity, representamen or iconicity were an everyday fare for each and everybody. The explanatory schemes and charts are often too cryptic; contrary to what the writers tend to believe, these usually raise as many questions as they try to answer. This generally meagre care for the reader's well-being as user of the text is rather ironic in writings about the science which is introduced into the designer's world precisely in order to speak for the user.

:19: Paradoxically, the papers which manage to hold the alluring, arcane world of semiotics at an arm length turn out to be more successful in conveying the relevance of of this science for designers. It helps that they are all practically-minded, generally well written and fairly easy to read. If a little handy anthology from both volumes on new design thinking was to be prepared, my choice would be five papers - all from the symposium volume. I will shortly sketch their merits.

:19: Uday Athavankar's intellectually sparkling, fairly long article on The Semantic Profile of Products is an implicit criticism of the current ideas and practices of design semantics, which indeed appears from his perspective as somewhat derivative and even shallow. Athavankar, professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, employs recent research into the way we categorize objects (where do cups end and mugs begin?) to find a key to the user's mental world. He uses such insights to form a base for devising strategies for formal innovation of products - a process where the notions of product identity and product novelty tend to come into conflict. Through concepts developed in the studies of human information processing, such as core membership of a category, central member, closeness to the central member, deviant members, and many others (maybe too many at times) he shows how categories are established, and explores shifts in perception of the core and deviant membership, and the causes of these shifts. Here one feels the user's world stands really in the center; Athavankar is polite though firm when he mentions the modernist idea of educating the public: "Discussions on educating society to become more design conscious and sensitive to design indirectly demand that the society conforms to the designer's mental world". Contrary to the hidden aesthetic predilections of the founding fathers his theory seems to be entirely independent of any particular aesthetics.

:20: Jacques Giard's paper Product Semantics and Communication presents a short and very useful reminder that communication consists of messages created, transmitted, received and responded to, and that it can be deemed successful only when the response matches the message. The awareness of various types, and causes, of mismatches are most helpful to designer's work. Giard, a Canadian professor of design, points out that designers often become all too fascinated by the creation of messages and fail to properly test whether the messages come through and lead to the intended response. He warns, very pointedly, and prophetically it seems, that ignoring such verifications "will eventually relegate product semantics to just another style"

:21: Donald Bush's Body Icons and Product Semantics, one of the highlights of the volume, is a well-argued and humane plea for a return to body analogies in design. Bush, a US professor of design history, suggests that in our perception we tend to scan products for images and semblances of humans (and animals). He classifies and discusses such clues under headings of lateral symmetry, verticality, differentiation, skeletons and axes, skin, organic forms, head and face, hands, gestures, and erotic imagery. This article can be seen as an invitation for designers to take heed of a previously tabu area, and break, or at least soften, the monopoly of abstract aesthetic of modernism.

:22: US designers Ed Dorsa, Fred Malven and Alan Mickelson provide in their well-written paper called Semantically Safe an excellent introduction into what can be called emergency semantics. The problem of exit marking is used to illustrate a sophisticated but easy to grasp and eminently usable theory of communicative properties of objects and spaces - to which Dorsa et al. give a somewhat confusing name of Expressive Validity. The three component parts of the theory, legibility, meaning and memorability are discussed in turns, the last one being especially relevant. Dorsa defines memorability as any attribute of an object that increases the probability that it can be wholly or partially reconstructed from the viewer's memory, and gives an informative outline of how memory works. To enhance memorability of objects, designers must understand working of memory.

:22: Birgit Kutschinski-Schuster's paper Product Semantics in the Context of Corporate Identity gives a concise and fascinating insight into the semiotics-based strategy for building up a company's identity. The author, a German design researcher, presents the theory behind this corporate identity strategy and discusses its three key notions: corporate behaviour, corporate design and corporate communication. The German lighting producer ERCO is then presented as a successful example of such comprehensive corporate identity strategy.

:23: Of the remaining papers Norbert Hammer's and Stefan Lengyel's short article reporting results of exploration of semantically relevant product surfaces through eye-movements should be mentioned as a paragon of lucid communication. In this respect it stands in contrast to the three remaining articles, which, though rich and relevant, like Hilka Lehtonen's paper on the evolution of architectural renderings, are, for various reasons, unnecessarily exacting as pieces of texts.


:23: This brings me to the last point, namely the role of the editors. Although both editors have done a very good job, the volumes still leave much to be desired. I believe a more active intervention in some texts was called for. Many articles, especially in the symposium volume, are unnecessarily cluttered with secondary information which could have been relegated into notes. The editorial summaries of the articles could have been done for both volumes, and prepared more thoroughly, in order to make the entry into the field easier. A short dictionary of key terms would have been a bonus, too. Now, I am sure none of these desiderata is the editors' fault. Annotating texts and sending them back to authors is an extremely time-consuming affair, and so is summarizing of articles, or producing a dictionary of terms. I am pointing out all this in order to underline that unless the editors are given the time they need they cannot be expected to do all they deem necessary. The problem is that the editor's work is generally underrated, although it is similar to the designer's work: the better job the editor does, the less striking, and less visible, it is. Volumes such as these should therefore be seen as tools in their own right; if editors are given enough elbow room, they can in substantial ways enhance the effectiveness of the messages contained.

:25: When all this is said, there is no doubt that both volumes, thanks to the Helsinki initiative, present a significant contribution to the search for a more viable theoretical groundwork for design after modernism. In fact a second conference on product semantic already took place at UIAH in the meantime, in August 1991, so there is still more to come.

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Other online reviews by Jan Michl:

Peter Lloyd Jones (1991) Taste Today: The Role of Appreciation in Consumerism and Design
G. Widengren, ed. (1994) Tanken och Handen: Konstfack 150 �r
M. Aav and N. Stritzler-Levine, eds. (1998) Finnish Modern Design

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