Design for a Known Audience
How Design Can Formulate a New Social Structure
Network-based technologies are bringing the world into a new age. One of the most notable signs is that mass collaboration is replacing professional management, which is good news for the mass of amateurs but bad for professional designers. But it’s not necessarily like that; it’s only a few outdated notions that need to be updated. For instance, what is a designer? Who are designers designing for? What’s the position of designers in the network-based society? This essay is intended to answer these questions. In the first half of the essay, I will try to articulate the internal paradox of the current design situation. The second half is about how designers can utilise this paradox and the new technologies to put themselves in a new social position. This essay attempts to ease the current professional anxieties of designers and advocate design as a form of activism whose own significant strength lies in formulating a new social structure.
I. Machines, capitalism and design
The liberation of human labour is dependent on machines. The consistency and efficiency of machines free us from repetitive labour, and the dependable, emotionless universality of machines guarantees equality for all. Human beings have produced machines as an alternative to themselves, in order to make up for their own limitations. Machines describe the desires of human beings, which are not only about labour but also about a narrative of “one for all and all for one” utopia. Yet to accomplish these tasks, machines always require rational programming and an environment in which to output results. These requirements themselves inform the aesthetic of machines, which is based on the principles of legitimacy and universality.
Apart from the responsibility of interpreting the human imagination adequately, the inhuman part of machines also became an inspiration for human beings. Yet as time has passed, machines have replaced more and more different kinds of labour, while human imagination has become more and more dependent on machines. Machines began as factory tools but in the end became conditions of thought. The wide use of machines has resulted in a monopoly on imagination, and the machine aesthetic has thus became the de facto logic in a different kind of labour.
Capitalism itself is fed and raised by machines. Without machines there wouldn’t be mass production, and without the aesthetic of machines there would be no sense in having mass communication. Without mass production and communication there would also be no possibility of mass profit. And the global conquest of capitalism has consolidated the aesthetic; as a result, the machine aesthetic has become the legitimate aesthetic.
Thus design, as a product of capitalism, has in a way been designed by machine aesthetics since its inception. The notions of mass production and mass communication are embedded in the root of design and have affected every aspect of it, from design education to the design process itself. This notion directly causes the fear that design will be misunderstood and turns almost every designer into a gambler. We use the most “understandable” or universal visual language in the hope that we will grab as big an audience as possible.
II. The communicative foundation
The essence of design is communication – verbal, visual, tactile, emotional, spiritual and subconscious. So to understand the limitations of design, an understanding of how communication works is required. Complete communication requires a sender, a message, a receiver, and a medium for delivering the message. Designers are often considered as agents of the process. A common belief is that if the communicative techniques and skills are good enough, the goals will be achieved. But this too is a classic concept derived from machine aesthetics. Of course communication skills are vitally important, but this idea is inhuman in its assumption that the sender(s) and the receiver(s) are simply tools who have no distinguishable personalities or memories and whose existence and perceptions are timeless. And it is only with this assumption that machines can function. But this is only the communication narrative that machines want us to have, and it’s not intrinsically human.
All the pre-mechanical cosmologies of different cultures – e.g., astrology from Europe and elemental systems from Asia – somehow describe the uniqueness of every human being and how a person will behave differently and perceive differently when he or she is in different relationships with different people, in different environments and in different timeframes. It is not a coincidence that West and East, North and South share the same perspective on human beings; it is simply because understanding human nature is essential in any human-based society. Although a human-machine society switches our attention from humans to machines, our understanding of humans should never be forgotten.
Having said that, successful communication must be based on a certain degree of common sense; to be more precise, an area of communicative commonality needs to exist. This area should not be understood as a fixed static feature like the essential universal human needs such as hunger and love but should be dynamically considered with the social topography between the communicative parties: common knowledge, shared experiences, emotional connections, time and space, etc. In this article I’ll call these collective features of the communicative commonality between communicating parties the “communicative foundation”. People will accept and even believe an idea only if and when it makes “sense” to them. But this “common sense” is not embedded in the origins of society – it’s negotiated, accumulated and renovated. The vocabulary we have now is not a given but comes from a long period of mass collaboration. It is the collective perception of our shared subjects. Therefore, “common sense” only exists to a certain extent and within a specific timeframe. It’s historical and transitory. In other words, a communicative foundation is actually more like a relational topography amongst the communicative parties. It does not exist objectively or universally.
III. The triangular restriction, #1
Isn’t narrowcasting (aka target marketing) exactly what this obvious truth of a communicative foundation is about? Well, not really. Audience analysis is more like a tool for improving odds for the gambler than for illustrating and understanding the diversity of human individuality. This too is a result of narrowcasting’s ambition of producing massive profits. As an approach, it works side by side with capitalism, following the aesthetic of machines. But this article has no intention of critiquing the pursuit of profit but rather seeks to point out the impossibility of having a humanist view of mass production and mass audiences. Think about the view from a plane – it’s not possible to see actual life on earth, is it? Or think about the a group photograph – the individual identities amongst the group inevitably vanish. This is how our eyes and brains work: neglecting the minor details in order to see the “big picture”. And the wider the audience, the thinner the communicative foundation among the group will become, thus reducing the vocabulary available for communicating. The vocabulary referred to here is not limited to linguistics or visual language but also includes gestures, emotions, memories, internal relationships – any tangible or intangible materials that can influence human communication. But no matter how rich our categories of language become, the restriction the audience places on the communication vocabulary remains: the bigger the audience, the smaller the available vocabulary.
This theory, however, depends on the condition that the communicative foundation is fixed and static. So the primary question becomes: Can’t we make an (artificial) foundation before communication even happens? Yes, and in fact, this is exactly what big branding is trying to achieve. Through nonstop advertising in every form (and format), brands manufacture a “new” vocabulary through shared experiences they create. The word “new” is placed in quotation marks because this vocabulary is more than likely reproduced within a controlled environment. For example, imagine how different our vision becomes if the word “innovation” is used to imply the difference between Apple and Google. Big branding is not likely to produce creativity because it aims at mass communication from the very beginning. Brands’ fear of not being understood universally (or by every possible member of the endless market) forces them to play it safe.
IV. The triangular restriction, #2
Every big brand aims to communicate to the masses from the start, but some might point out that there are exceptions, such as Facebook. Perhaps this is true, as Facebook started with a limited audience (Harvard students), with a real-name policy as its vital design strategy that distinguished its identity from those of other social networks. Although Facebook is no longer a campus network, this significant design vocabulary remains as a fingerprint of its original audience. And as a result of its massive expansion, this supposedly subcultural design language poses a threat to the native of multiple identities, which have been an inherent part of Internet culture. What Facebook did to the world tells us that bringing a subcultural vocabulary to the mass (or mainstream) is possible, as long as resources are committed. But the “resources” described here go way beyond a financial, capitalist extent and are more about the ability to sustain the process.
To be clearer about the definition of resources, I would like to take a big leap from commercial design to seeing social movements as spontaneous massive designs that aim to spread an idea to the masses. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) social movement is an obvious example. In terms of population, the pursuit of LGBT social acceptance clearly came from a minority’s needs. Yet through decades and decades of efforts, through all kinds of promotion and discussion, creating more and more vocabulary for communicating about the issue with the masses, nowadays acceptance of LGBT has become a widespread idea. This fact demonstrates what “resources” here really means: not only capital and channels but, most importantly, the ability to sustain the process. Combining the examples from commercial design and social movements, we can see the restriction the vocabulary places on resources: the bigger the audience for the vocabulary that’s created, the more resources are consumed.
V. The triangular restriction, #3
So if a restriction exists between vocabulary and audience, but a certain amount of resources is able to “unlock” the restriction, doesn’t it mean whoever owns the biggest amount of resources has the most power of all? Fortunately not. If we look further at the Facebook example, communication between the communicative parties changes during expansion. After expanding its territory from a campus network to a general social network, Facebook lost its intimate connection with its original audience but also failed to touch its new and wider audience. LGBT people at some level have been transferred as materials of consumerism: the representative group has been flattened into symbolic images in order to “communicate to the masses”. The mass vocabulary seems to always create a simplified, flattened, and eventually compressed symbolic “word” by the time of its expansion. But why does this happen?
As stated in section II, a communicative foundation is actually a relational topography among the communicative parties. But when the scope of the audience increases, the topography doesn’t simply become larger; the nature of the topography also changes. On one hand, the intimacy between the communicative parties naturally dissolves; on the other hand, others’ presence influences people’s expressions and perceptions.Imagine you, the reader, have to explain an idea on different occasions: once to your closest friend, once to your peers, and once at a conference. Your expression, i.e., your communicative language, changes consciously or subconsciously as the audience widens, even if your closest friend or your peers are part of the conference. That’s because the scope of the audience alters your notion of distance, thus changing your expression: you will avoid too-personal or too-informal language because the communicative foundation for the language has disappeared. Now switch your imaginary role from a speaker at the conference to a member of the audience; imagine you are the closest friend of the speaker. The notion of others’ presence interrupts the intimacy between you and your friend; thus, your reaction to your friend’s speech also changes, because your position in the new (bigger) topography is different than it is in the old (smaller) one.
When the nature of the relational topography changes, the created vocabulary tends to compress its richness so it can easily travel to every individual in the widening group. This goes back to the first restriction: the bigger the audience, the smaller the available vocabulary. The created vocabulary which is meant to enrich the communicative language of the masses will inevitably self-compress to a flattened symbol that is lifted off its original foundation as its domain expands. The audience’s perception of Apple as a company is a salient example: when it still positioned itself as a niche market company, its users had much more connection to and understanding of its products and culture, but after its widespread success, not only was its philosophy forced to flatten as an image but its connections to the users also became less and less.
Now you can probably see the third restriction: the bigger the audience the vocabulary is applied to, the poorer that vocabulary becomes. So a ceiling always exists in communication design. The scope of the audience, the richness of the vocabulary: only one of these two factors can be maximised. This ceiling is what I call “the triangular restriction”.
VI. The other side of the long tail
The triangular restriction probably sounds depressing to designers or any individuals or community who are trying express their independent ideas to the world. Indeed, if independent people keep wishing their idea will somehow get recognition from the masses, it’s a dead end.
To explain this, I will use the biggest Chinese B2C online platform, Taobao, as an example. After a decade of effort, Taobao developed a business model that helps individual startups to develop their business through collective favour. The platform become enormous, because as a union of startups it provides an endless “long tail”: whatever you want, you can find it on this singular website – “the omnipotent Taobao”, as most Chinese netizens say. But this is not necessary a sweet dream for all the startups. In fact, the Taobao startups are finding business more and more difficult as the platform becomes stronger and stronger; this is not so much about platform dictatorship but ironically because they find it more difficult to find customers. Now they have to pay for advertisements or improve SEO (search engine optimisation), and worse, the Matthew effect (a sociological phenomenon in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) is becoming more and more serious. The first requires resources, but the latter causes a lot of independents to give up their business, either changing it to follow the trend or giving up and “finding a real job”.
What happen to Taobao and the Taobao startups illustrates both sides of the long tail theory. The long tail theory points out that with a large population of customers and negligible stocking and distribution costs, the profit of selling a large number of unique items, each in small quantities, is comparable to selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. This strategy become significant in the age of the Internet. Chris Anderson wrote in Wiredmagazine at 2004 that he saw the long tail as a liberation for customers who had suffered from an insufficient distribution market in which only “hits” were available; with the Internet, “almost anything is worth offering on the off chance it will find a buyer.” It is indeed a revolution, as Anderson claims, but the fruit of the revolution only belongs to monopolies.
Look at the three rules that he proposed in his article: “Make everything available”, “Lower the price”, and “Help me find it”. All of them require a strong platform that is big and cheap but full-service, which is what Taobao is all about. To achieve these tasks plus try to be sustainable, the platform has no other option than to be a monopoly. But the components of the long tail are forgotten – or more precisely, those who produce and supply the components of the long tail are seen as tools for extending the endless long tail rather than creators of niche markets. What is happening to the Taobao startups illustrates the other side of the long tail: how many people can afford to run an independent business that will only sell a handful of items? The long tail is not a blessing for us as individuals; it’s an abduction by the monopolies. In other words, the long tail can only work for a monopoly that sees the long tail as icing on the cake instead of a source of vital income.
VII. The Matthew effect and the machine aesthetic
Although it seems that again monopolies have it all, there is a paradox in the relationship between platforms like Taobao and their startups: platform monopolies try to create an endless long tail to sustain their business, but the bigger the platform becomes, the stronger the Matthew effect gets, forcing some relatively weak components of the long tail to drop out of the business model. But the whole point of the long tail is to sell weak products, so if the producers of the weak products quit, how can the platform sustain the strategy in the long run? In this case, the long tail becomes only about how industries deal with their leftovers rather than about the merging of niche markets or even the needs of consumers.
But to be fair, this situation is not the result of deliberate conspiracy by platforms or industries; the Taobao startups also have themselves to blame for their disappointment. When independent designers don’t have the resources to develop the communicative foundation but still try to communicate with the masses in the age of information overload, this paradoxical design logic is not even gambling, it’s finger-crossing. Even if you get lucky and somehow touch a foundation that has not yet been found, like achieving extreme fame overnight, your luck won’t last forever.
When we try to talk to mass audiences as a form of communication, we’re practising a form of speech. But clearly speech is not the only way that we have to reach each other; it’s just the most “economical” way. This form has been so overused, especially since the age of machine capitalism begin, that designers hardly think beyond it. In most cases, designers create work with the notion of speech in mind, even if they’re actually designing for minor groups. This notion can be traced back to the machine aesthetic that influences capitalism and design, which I believe plays a part in the Matthew effect and the long-tail disappointment.
Design as a profession is in a very special position within the social structure. On the one hand, it appears as one of the shapers of culture; on the other hand, it has a close relationship with economics – capitalists use design to upgrade the value of their products and earn more profit. You could say designers own the power of speech but never treat their audience as actual living persons; they are blank as paper waiting to be painted by the clothes they buy, the wristbands they choose, the ideologies they believe. Over time, perceived as such, people are likely to think of themselves as such. With this universal self-cognition, of course the Matthew effect happens – because of the need for recognition, the sense of belonging, the wish to be “colourful”.
It’s almost as if designers help to create this “cognitive development programme”, transforming humans into gadgets that fit into the machine aesthetic. And ironically, the Matthew effect plays a big role in the disappointment of the long tail.
VIII. Professional, amateurs, and pro-ams
The problem of the long tail may only seem to matter to those designers who want to sell their products, but another issue will clearly affect all designers: the hand of the machine is starting to reach the field of communication, while collective intelligence is threatening the privilege of professionals.
British author Charles Leadbeater gave his most recent book, We-Think, the subtitle Mass Innovation, Not Mass Production, which sums up his idea. Leadbeater argues that the real source of innovation is massive collaboration rather than institutions or companies. Leadbeater illustrated his argument by drawing an imaginary scenario in his 2005 TED talk:
“Who in the music industry, 30 years ago, would have said, ‘Yes, let’s invent a musical form which is all about dispossessed black men in ghettos expressing their frustration with the world through a form of music that many people find initially quite difficult to listen to. That sounds like a winner; we’ll go with it.’ […] Thirty years later, rap music is the dominant musical form of popular culture. It would never have come from the big companies. It had to start… with these pro-ams [professional-amateurs]…people who want to do things because they love it, but they want to do these things to very high standards…”
This idea is clearly influenced by open-source, networked-based technology, and I completely agree with the point that real innovation comes from the needs of users, not big companies. I have discussed the reasons big companies can only play it safe in section III of this essay. This conflict has become clearer and clearer in the age of collective intelligence, and that’s where designers’ professional worry comes from.
Charles Leadbeater distinguishes professionals from mass innovation in proving his pro-am theory. But it wouldn’t be fair to call those who know about recording/mixing technology, or combine normal bikes and transitional racing bikes into mountain bikes (his other example of a group of young cycling fans inventing the bike they wanted), amateurs. In Leadbeater’s work, the word “pro-am” suspiciously implies that professionals are those who get paid for what they do and pro-ams are those who are good at what they do but don’t get paid for it. But nowadays a lot of professionals use their expertise out of interest; they get paid by cultural institutions or just peer networks and sometimes they don’t get paid. Income shouldn’t be the way we judge their creativity.
Secondly, even grassroots rap music’s development cannot exclude the help of professionals, the same as other products of communities that have a shared interest. As Leadbeater said at the TED conference, pro-ams are people who love what they do and want to do it at a high level. And communities like that will never be satisfied by one level of achievement; they will always want better and better. Full-time professionals will eventually be needed, whether they’re transferred from the pro-ams or trained.
Last but not least, a closed economic circle needs design to generate higher value to be self-sustaining. Take self-publishing in China, for example: when certain circles want to publish their collections of writings, drawings, etc., they often decide to go DIY – the perfect act for people who love what they do and want to do it the best. But even though making a book today is not as difficult as before, the outcome of these products is often very “amateurish”. But a book is well designed, especially in a way that “understands” the circle, it often sells many more copies than expected. And the extra profit is often used to invest in infrastructure for the circle’s activity (domain names, server space, bandwidth, etc.)
IX. The new position of design
Cloudsourcing, crowdfunding, self-publishing, 3D printers, C2B factories in China – all these existing facts are crying out for a new economic circle; the only thing missing is a way to connect them all. When Charles Leadbeater talked about mass innovation, he was actually talking about innovation by a closed group who know what they want and are able to make it happen. Thanks to the Internet, these closed groups are no longer restricted by geographic or even linguistic limitations. Through massive innovation, the structure of society changes massively.
When we talk about how capitalism is fed and raised by machines and how design as a product of capitalism is framed by the machine aesthetic, it also can be said that the design perspective that comes from the machine aesthetic in fact consolidates capitalism, especially global capitalism, which is like an accomplice of the machines. There’s a solid triangle here, and design is the connection. According to this logic, if design finds a way to create another kind of economic circle, which will connect all the “cloud” things, a new world may just be created.
What makes this different from the Taobao startups is that in this case, people own the economic circle from creation and production to consumption; it’s a full circle, with extended triples as added value. And we get the benefit of the long tail but not necessarily an abduction by the platform. Because when we do design in the form of a group talk, dialogue, whisper, or even monologue, when the relationship or distance between the message’s sender and receivers become so close, it opens the possibility of exploiting the relational topography and enriching the vocabulary. This advantage is something big companies and monopolies cannot use because of the triangular restriction. By designing for an audience you known, humans get back control over communication.
X. Water, capitalism and the canal digger
Water was praised by the famous strategist Sun Tzu as the most adaptable substance, that is, the one that has the qualities to survive and win the battle in the end. “He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent, and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain,” Sun Tzu said.
What capitalism did in past centuries demonstrates perfectly the philosophy of water: it did everything for profit, even at the price of changing its beliefs – in fact, capitalism has no beliefs. Democracy, liberty and freedom used to be claimed as the pretty package of capitalism, but Chinese capitalism breaks the fantasy. In the end, capitalism can adapt, can modify its tactics in relation to whatever the environment appears to be, as long as there is profit. Is there a way for us to utilise this feature to our own benefit?
I would like to use an accent Chinese story as an allegory for my proposal. It is called “Great Yu Controls the Waters” and is about the different methodologies that Gun and Yu use to handle a flood. Gun built dikes and dams to stop the flood, but the effort was in vain; Yu built a system of canals to guide the flood and eventually solve the problem.
It can be easy to associate Gun’s methodology with how socialism dealt with capitalism in past decades. In the time of Mao, China tried to create various policies and cultural movements to restrict any capitalist act that went beyond basic needs. But the problem is, we do need water; we just don’t want a flood that drowns every aspect of life.
So what I propose is that we learn from the Great Yu and build a system of canals to lead the “water” to the place that is best for the people. Designers, the new job is to find the place that needs the water, and dig a canal.