Today, we wanted to post a great article from the New York Times about the concept of “affect” and how it relates to design. In this instance, affect describes the way people are impacted, changed, and react to design.
What moves you the most when considering design elements? Take the above photo. Are you impacted by the colors, lines, function, size? Let us know!
Defining the Emotional Cause of “Affect”
Published: December 2, 2012
VENICE — If asked to describe what you think of a chair or a phone, you might begin by explaining what it looks like, what it does, and if it has any special qualities. But one of the most important factors in determining how you feel will be your instinctive response when you encounter the object, an experience that is similar to what philosophers call an “affect.”
That word is becoming rather popular in design circles. Not that it is new. On the contrary, the concept dates back to Aristotle’s writing in ancient Greece. Nor is it new for designers and design theorists to discuss how design impacts the senses. But doing so can be complicated, not least because the language to describe it is often imprecise, sometimes confusingly so. Some people refer to the fuzzy bundle of sensations that design can provoke as a change of mood or atmosphere, and others talk about a new tone or spirit.
Affect could prove to be a more accurate term, which would be helpful. After all, the clearer we are in identifying the different ways that design influences us, the better equipped we will be to understand it, and to ensure that its power is used intelligently.
The concept of affect may be rooted in ancient Greece, but the word hails from ancient Rome and the Latin noun affectus. It was introduced to the English language in the 1300s to describe the rush of emotions experienced when someone falls in love or is overcome by joy or sorrow. In the 17th century, the philosophers René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza distinguished affect from emotion by emphasizing its transformative nature. It was redefined again in the 20th century by philosophers like Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, who applied it to aesthetics, literature and technology.
Affect is now being used in architecture, notably by the Iranian-born, London-based architect Farshid Moussavi, who devoted her contribution to this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which ended here Nov. 25, to “Architecture and Affects.” By projecting giant images of different architectural styles and structures, she illustrated how architects can define the way we relate to buildings by creating different affects through their choice of scale, materials, shapes, decorative elements and methods of construction.
Similar principles apply to the design of other things, whether they are objects, like chairs and phones, or images. I know that my response to them is as likely to be determined by the seemingly random assortment of memories and associations they provoke as it is by fact.
An obvious example is a typeface, like the one you are reading now. Simply by looking at the shapes of the letters you will know instinctively how its designer wanted you to interpret it. You don’t need to be a typographic historian to realize that the simplicity of a font with no decorative details, like Helvetica, used in the logos of American Airlines and American Apparel, is intended to evoke efficiency, speed and clarity. And you should be able to guess that the more elaborately shaped and ornately decorated the letters are, the likelier they will be to appear on the cover of a trashy novel or in the opening titles of a sappy movie. We know intuitively that, unlike ascetic Helvetica, a typeface with those affects is not intended to be taken entirely seriously.
Or consider a familiar object: the Thonet Model No. 14, a wooden dining chair designed by the German industrialist Michael Thonet during the mid-1800s. It was introduced in 1859 as the first mass-manufactured chair to be sold at an affordable price and has since seated more people than any other chair.
Anyone who is familiar with its history will know how radical the No. 14 would have seemed in the 1800s, when it was one of the first pieces of furniture, which was as likely to be bought by a teacher as a prince. They will also know that Thonet devoted years of research and testing to its development, and rejected numerous early versions until he found one that satisfied him. He then continued to refine the chair’s design and by 1867 had worked out how to make it from just six pieces of wood, ten screws and two nuts.
But even without that knowledge, you can still sense what sort of chair Thonet wanted to make, whether or not you realize that you are doing so, by instinctively decoding the affects of his design. What do they tell us about the No. 14? That it will be useful, robust and, somehow, both bold and reassuring.
We can see that Thonet planned to produce a practical chair from its structure. Why else would he have designed it from so few components: each of which is compact, simple in shape, and clearly designated to fulfill a specific function? The fact that nothing is surplus to requirements suggests that the No. 14 was designed, not only with a certain bravura and a refusal to compromise, but with considerable care, which is bound to feel reassuring.
The same qualities are embedded in its stylistic elements. There is nothing fussy about the chair, signaling that it was intended to be useful and durable. But there is a tension between its gleaming wood and gentle curves, which remind us of the rustic coziness of traditional hand-crafted furniture, and the precision of those curves: clues that they must have been made by machine, not by hand.
Back in 1859, the first No. 14s promised to combine the reliability of industrial production with the emotional warmth of wood. Over 150 years later, we still find that combination reassuring, while sensing that there is something unexpected about it, bold even. Each of us will interpret the affects of Thonet’s chair slightly differently, but the impression they produce is very powerful, which is why understanding that sensation is not just important to designers but to us too.
The Thonet No. 14 Chair