Product design as a palimpsest


Stalwarts of social science are invaluable in helping us understand our lives and the meanings we cultivate within them. They consequently are also helpful in understanding our work, the things we make, and all the imagined, yet hugely powerful, myths we ascribe to them.

The humanities and social sciences devote most of their energies to explaining exactly how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of life. – Yuval Harari

We live in a world where the exchange of goods and services is largely, if not exclusively, motivated by emotions. Emotions do not exist within objective denotation, they are the product of connotations. Umberto Eco defines ideology as “the final connotation of the totality of connotations of the sign or the context of signs”. Our underlying agendas, the things that motivate us, are therefore at the whim of connotation.

We produce content at a point in time when the movement from denotation to connotation is happening at a continuously faster pace, because our world is increasingly mediated by digital interfaces. We experience the world via an RGB interpolation.

Barthes identified that ideology is at its strongest when this quickening towards, and misrecognition of, connotation occurs. In order to take advantage of this, many of us have become the Usain Bolts of semiosis. The techniques we use today aren’t completely new, but what Žižek termed as our “symbolic universe” is becoming even more obvious as we increasingly upload our lives into virtual paradigms. It is signs all the way down.

Let’s look at Apple’s claim regarding the iPad: “It’s magical. You already know how to use it.” This sums up why Apple has been extremely innovative, not at technology, but at marrying new technology with existing discourses for which we have a natural affinity.

[A sign] appears to be based on pure equivalence simply because we do not recognise in it a sleeping inference. – Umberto Eco

The iPad is not revolutionary, for the very reason the advert claims: You already know how to use it. How? Because in designing it, Apple has successfully called upon the semiotic ecosystem in which its intended users are located. It isn’t magic.

Apple has been very effective at cultivating a discourse around and within their products which make the technological innovations used seem less alien, more human, even loveable.

The palimpsest analogy

A palimpsest is a manuscript on which two or more texts from different points in time have been written, each one being erased or partially erased to make room for the next. The almost ubiquitous affinity for skeuomorphic design, which was and is still very much present within the flat design trend (just slightly less obviously so), exemplifies palimpsest-like thinking in the creation of product interfaces.

I believe successful tech companies, like Apple, have always understood and made use of this palimpsest-like approach. Figuratively, the scripture of new technological paradigms need to be written with scratchings of the old in the background, to maintain some form of discourse users can understand. As Michel Foucault has rightly pointed out, we are the ideological products of our own discourse. We become faulty if plucked from it cold-turkey. Innovation, in its truest definition, is often undesirable and confusing.

Beyond simply being intuitive, techniques within discourse and semiosis allow us to create emotive relationships with products that others assume are the result of objective evaluations, when they are not. If people bought and used products based strictly on the tasks they need to get done, a company like Apple most likely wouldn’t exist or be nearly as successful. Controlled connotations and familiar-feeling innovations dominate the market.

The problem with pigeon-holed disciplines

Social science can also change the way organisations are structured. Intertextuality of sign systems expose the flawed thinking of creating hardline separations between various disciplines. As Julia Kristeva put it, intertextuality is “a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another”.

It can be easily argued that intertextuality is ubiquitous. Following in the same vein, the more our different disciplines work together the more coherent and meaningful the products we create. A fuller understanding of intertextuality can further motivate the dissolution of harmful divisions that run counter to how we fundamentally communicate using our hugely rich and intertextual repertoire.

Avoiding blind regurgitation

On a more introspective level, Foucault’s explorations of discourse remind us that we need to be more aware of our own slave-like influences:

Discourse is not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing subject, but, on the contrary, a totality, in which the dispersion of the subject and his discontinuity with himself may be determined.

Better understanding these influences can make us more cognisant of our work, and guard against blind consumption and regurgitation. In my opinion, rational inquiry of this kind is our most important investment. Our preferred software and hardware, and our ever-refined industry-specific guidelines, mean nothing without it.

The great thing is that so many great minds before us have made it relatively easy to make extremely important realisations about our work and our place in it. We only need to remember and study their work. As makers of products, as caretakers of connotation, I believe we forget or ignore them at our own peril.