One of the basic tools in communication studies is Jakobson model. It presents all the involved actors in a communicational process. It’s well known so there’s no much need for an introduction.
If we interpolate it to the Industrial Design field we can find some parallels. The sender would be the designer or company behind the design; the receiver would be the consumer / user; the channel is the object itself and the message would be the assortment of values that the designer wishes to communicate. The interesting part comes from looking at what happens with the code.
In communication theory the communicational code is a set of knowledge in which the message is codified. For a successful communication the code must be based on knowledge shared by both sender and receiver.
In the object’s code particular case we can talk about the knowledge that references components and function of different elements that compose man’s artificial nature. That’s how a person might recognize how a new device works by associating it with the knowledge of previous, similar, devices. A paradigm of the “switch” is compared to the complete “switch” syntagm that this person knows about and looks for similarities between them and the new object the person is faced with.
I should study in more depth the mental processes of analysis that allows for the recognition of a function of use procedure in a innovative product or the mechanisms that allows people to assimilate new elements into their own object code.
What’s peculiar about this code is the lack of conventions regarding it. It’s not a code that people learn or teach in a institutionalized way. It’s a code that is generated by use and association with the artificial world with its universal presence in our lives helps us with its assimilation and transmission.
This causes evident issues in the professional design practise, where its use is much more intuitive than it should be since this code is one of the biggest tools that a designer has access to regarding to communication, obviously supported by other visual codes like aesthetics. The skilful use of these codes is what allows a designer to communicate effectively through his or her designs.
The lack of explicit conventions involve introduces certain difficulties in the intentional use of the object’s code. The huge variety and diversity of elements in the artificial world and all the relationships between these makes it practically impossible to rigidly define and sort. And even if we could I wonder if that wouldn’t be damaging to innovation and the development of new products .
One way to approach this could be, not to try and generate conventions or definitions of the code but to understand the way it operates. It’s not an easy task since there are a lot of complexity and a bit amount of relationships happening in the process all associated to cognitive behaviour.
Anyway I might try a simple analysis as an example. Let’s take a desk lamp as our subject of study. We can take the whole object as a sentence composed of several different elements that can be broken apart.
As a first approach to the object we make a general recognition, comparing it to all the other objects we know about. By finding matches with other objects be it by shape, materials or other criteria the object is successfully recognized. Since this object bares similarities to the “lamp” paradigm in our brain we identify it as a desk lamp.
We could take it a bit further and say that if it doesn’t precisely match with the paradigm in our memory, like can be the case with highly innovative products or those with unconventional shapes, we can achieve the same deduction by recognizing the main components. With our lamp example we can see different parts like light emitter, the switch, the power cord and the base.
A desk lamp is defined by the fact that it emits light. So it needs space for a light bulb and a screen, these elements are part of our knowledge so they allows us to recognize the function. With the popularity of Led lighting there’s been a change of paradigms that had to be assimilated into the object’s code before people was able to identify new products using it. During this assimilation process the only way to recognize these objects as lamps was to see them working. But even then the fact that there were other familiar parts could help people recognize it as a weird new lamp. For example lamps need to be able to be turned on and off so they usually have a switch. Even haptic switches need to be clearly signposted. Desk lamps also need a base and a power cord or a battery.
Every single element of the lamp is subjected to the same process of assortment and matching with paradigm / syntagm that allows us to associate it with another element we already know of the artificial world and even if it’s not the particular element we look at the relationships between them. And I haven’t even mentioned all the information we can get just by looking at the context where the object is placed.
This process allows every person to understand the function and operation of every object he or she comes across. It’s the designers job to use the object’s code in a conscious way to help these processes and allow a better use of the products that are being designed. This is particularly important when working on innovative products that aren’t yet part of the object’s code.
This is all a very superficial approach. I should study the relationship between this code and other codes like aesthetics for example. Those codes might share or reinforce elements and might allow the development of more complex messages, help define the context of use and the user the product is designed for.
Food for though.