I was poking around on one of my new favorite blogs titled “Creating Passionate Users” when I came across a reference to something really neat. Apparently Airstream hired Christopher Deam to design the interior of one of their trailers. To quote MoCoLoco “The summum of modern form and function – on wheels. ” I could not agree more. Apparently I am coming late to the party here with this trailer as it was introduced on 2003, but it sure is pretty and I sure do want one. Hmm perhaps I can add this to my Amazon wishlist…
This trailer is a wonderful example of design being used to transform the mundane into something elegant and that is actually a joy to use. This trailer reminds me of a concept I have been reading and thinking about for some time, namely that objects that are attractive actually seem to work better. Don Norman has written an informative piece about this, he points out what I think many people intuitively understand, attractive things work better. From a purely rational viewpoint this does not seem to logically follow, one would think that an object designed for pure functionality would always work better. In practice we find that this is not always the case.
There is a dynamic tension inherent between attractiveness and functionality and sometimes this results in attractive items that, given a specific environment, seem to work better. The example that Norman uses that most hits home for me is the idea of using a monochrome or grey scale computer monitor for my day to day computing needs. Rationally there is very little actual advantage to using a color monitor for most computer uses. But I am not giving up my color display, and likely neither will anybody else. This is simply because we like color, it is more attractive. In some instances color can be used to convey additional information, but for most computing tasks, programming, reading email, word processing, etc, color is nothing more than decoration. However our subjective experience of using color vs. grey scale is that color works better. Norman’s explanation for this is very cogent and relies upon the introduction of the concept of “affect”. To quote his essay – “Affect and cognition can both be considered information processing systems, but with different functions and operating parameters. The affective system is judgmental, assigning positive and negative valence to the environment rapidly and efficiently. The cognitive system interprets and makes sense of the world. Each system impacts the other: some emotions — affective states — are driven by cognition, and cognition is impacted by affect.”
Affect is our instantaneous reaction to the people, things and events around us. This response is emotional and colors our views and actions in the light of our emotional rather than rational experiences. From a brain chemistry POV we find that different emotional states alter our brain chemistry, and this in turn alters our perceptions and cognitive functions. Depending on a given situation and its resulting affect our cognition or reason will occur in either a depth first or breadth first manner. This results in thinking that is either very focused and not easily distractible or thinking that is very broad and more prone to very creative, easily distractible thinking. The easiest example for either type of thinking I can think of involves driving. So imagine you are driving to work listening to good music, the road is clear and your mind is relaxed and unfocused. This environment is one that would cause positive affect in most people. You are thinking of many different things, all at once. Basically mentally you are playing with concepts such as: designing houses, coding problems at work, dog training, etc. All of a sudden you see flashing lights ahead and in the distance an accident that is crawling with police and emergency services appears. Immediately your mind shifts gears and becomes intensely focused on driving and the immediate environment. All other thoughts disappear and suddenly you are applying your breaks, changing lanes, and more to the point, you are now paying “the fuck” attention. This shift in thinking and behavior results from the instantaneous negative affect caused in response to the situation. In my experience logic and reason follow after the oh shit response has already occurred.
Negative affect focuses the mind, making it less distractible and positive affect broadens the thought processes, making it more distractible. This has broad yet simple consequences for design. Things used in stressful, negative affect situations, must accommodate people who may have a high level of focus, perhaps even tunnel vision. Therefore they must be well designed so that they are both simple to use and understand. Whereas things designed for positive affect situations should reinforce the positive affect, by making the person experience more positive affect. This change in information processing then allows the person to be more creative and makes their work easier. Hence items that create a positive affect, and most attractive items do enhance positive affect, encourage creative activities. Hence attractive tools do actually work better.
And what does this have to do with trailers… well what is going to be the more comfortable therefore easier to use trailer, this one or this one.