Until about 200 years ago, the design process was quite immediate in that there was a very direct connection between people who made things and the people who used them. If you wanted a canoe, you’d use the time-tested method of getting bark off a tree, and shaping it like your forefathers did. They learned what worked over time, by the process of boats sinking, or floating. There was an evolution to the forms that products, buildings and packaging took. The person who designed and built your boat probably lived down the street. There wasn’t really a mass market.
Designer as Intermediary
But as technology and mass production became part of the business environment and markets expanded, people who bought and used things got farther and farther from the people who made them, so that eventually, they never even met. People who made things had to imagine what people might need in the future, and gradually, the field of professional design emerged as an intermediary, anticipating and planning for products, services and communications would impact and connect to people they’d never met.
Where the engineer, marketer and sales force typically represents the provider of a product or service, the designer represents the user, defining what would be desirable, useable and useful to people. Even in the developmental years of the design professions, designers understood that the products, services and spaces needed to address a range of desires and physical and emotional issues that went well beyond functional need. Products and services were opportunities to create experiences for the users, not just a solution to a problem.
Representing the User
When Henry Dreyfus, one of the founders of the Industrial Designers Society of America and it’s first president, designed the now classic phone handset in 1937, he said that “the phone is merely a way for people to have the experience of communicating directly with someone they love over great distances.”
In 1939, he designed the Big Ben Alarm clock for Westclock. After a year of development, it was ready to market. The first customer was the John Wanamaker department store in New York City. Henry Dreyfus, in what is considered to be the first live ‘user testing,’ observed potential customers pick up the clock, examine it and put it down without buying it or asking any questions. Eventually, he questioned customers. Why were they putting it down after examining it? What was wrong?
Their response: it felt too light. Something so light couldn’t be substantive. Whether they were right or wrong, Dreyfus realized that people were associating weight with value even though he knew there was no connection. In a radical departure from the notion that ‘less is more,’ he added a 3 oz. weight, serving no function whatsoever, but to create the perception of greater substance. In this case, more weight equated to more value. He said, “people want the experience of knowing that their alarm clock had something inside.” Weight was an attribute that had meaning and relevance… it created a cue that led to a perception of value and substance.