The Power and Prejudice of Product Appearance
Stuart Walker | University of Calgary
Our initial visual impression of a product has a powerful influence on our judgment, and our response will be strongly related to factors such as convention and personal notions of taste. Convention refers to what we expect a product to look like, allowing us to place it within a known milieu and, thus, understand it. Taste refers to the kinds of associations a particular aesthetic will prompt; it allows us to decide if the product supports our idea of ourselves within the sociocultural grouping to which we belong or aspire. The potency of this first impression raises two important points. Firstly, convention and taste tend to hamper acceptance of new kinds of design solutions that depart significantly from current norms, which, in turn, can hamper progress in design practice. This is especially important today because there is an urgent need to develop new, more sustainable ways forward in product design and manufacturing, and it may well be that such approaches do depart significantly from what has gone before because they take into account issues that have not previously been considered. Secondly, this overriding influence of a product’s appearance can create a false impression of the product’s contribution. For example, if a so called ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-‘ product is given a ‘simple, clean’ appearance, then there will be a causal association set up in the viewer’s mind between a clean and simple appearance and environmental responsibility.
Equally, if a simple and clean appearance aligns with one’s own personal taste, then there will likely be a strong positive impression created that sustainability and one’s personal taste are congruent. As will be discussed here, this association between product appearance, taste, and sustainability is not determinate, and appearances can be deceptive. The outer appearance of a product is infinitely variable and can appeal to many different tastes irrespective of whether the product is ‘sustainable’ or not. For sustainability, there is a need to go beyond appearances and to carefully consider the product as a whole, both in terms of its production, materials, use and after-use, and in terms of its meaning and contribution. This discussion explores these issues and illustrates the arguments with exploratory design examples, which demonstrate that notions of taste are a powerful but often highly prejudicial aspect of product design. The discussion raises issues about the design process and the assumptions we make when designing products and it indicates directions that could begin to overcome ‘designerly’ preconceptions about taste in order to address design for sustainability within a broader and richer aesthetic palette.