How People Feel & Think: Design, Emotion, Worldview & Openness

By: Maggie Ma & Zimmy Kang

In the past weeks of class, we explored how design is perceived, processed, and interacted with, as well as the importance of considering the diversity of worldviews that come with different cultures and socioeconomic ethnic backgrounds.

Design & Happiness

Jonathan Chapman’s lecture was extremely impactful to us because we always thought of happiness as a metric of a design’s success, rather than a byproduct. In a culture that prioritizes customer satisfaction (“the customer is always right”), we defined good design by the customer’s contentment and ease of use. A new concept we learned was hedonic adaptationonce the “happiness boost” (buying a new car, getting a good grade, etc.) dissipates, people always return to their baseline level of happiness. We related the theory to clicker games, designed to be simple and rewarding to keep players in a constant loop of positive feedback. We also thought of TikTok — the app’s 15-second video clips cater to our increasingly short attention spans as we are repeatedly stimulated by content molded for our interests (thus, the “for you page”).

Shameless self-promo for our design class TikTok page.

Much of today’s design is based in gratification and convenience to adapt to our increasing impatience and our need to be constantly stimulated. Social media likes, one-day delivery services, high-speed internet, fast food, ready-made meals are all recent innovations for the “on-the-go” consumer as our lifestyles become more fast-paced and our experiences more transient. We thought about how long until these quick, “happy” designs plateau, and looked into a quote by Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978):

“… gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged.”

Diagram of the “hedonic treadmill” in which the blue line signifies your happiness baseline.

Perception & Inclusivity

Moreover, a few of Jonathan’s ideas paralleled Hilary Carey’s point that the vast differences in worldview and perception between different demographics make it impossible to design with consideration for every single individual. Thus, it becomes a significant responsibility of ours to carefully define, research, and respond to our specific range of users. Especially within today’s political, social, and economic landscape, we find it increasingly critical to guide the conversation toward what inclusivity looks like in the field of design, in terms of both what’s being created and who is creating it.

For example, the idea of the “default user” being an able bodied, middle-class white male stood out to us; even as two chinese-american females, we’d internalized this eurocentric patriarchy from a young age through pop culture, advertising, and other forms of media. This impression is further perpetuated within our higher education at CMU and the current CMU design program, as the vast majority of faculty and staff are either white, male, or both. The question emerges: what kinds of blind spots does this create for students entering the field of design? Could we, ironically, be complicit in the system that continues to uphold masculinity and whiteness as the norm?

The increasingly gratification-centered structure of the design world has direct ties to the ways in which target audiences are formed–as designers and corporations shift the focus toward average and ideal users in efforts to streamline a reward system, it becomes imperative that we keep in mind those who may become more marginalized as a result.