An experience-design genealogy: The French got there first
One of the more certain perils of remaining monolingual in a globalized age is that you essentially have to wait for others to translate literature that might be of interest before you can familiarize yourself with it – and, in the case of marginal discourses, you may have to wait years. Decades, even.
And when the wait is over? Well, I often complain that user experience is an amnesiac field, distressingly prone to reinvention of the wheel, but it’s truer than even I had any idea – and in this case, the blunder is my own. It seems that all the ideas I’m proudest of are ones that have been had before. Not merely had before, but expressed with more grounding, precision and rigor.
I learn this from picking up Larry Busbea’s newish Topologies: The Urban Utopia in France, 1960-1970. It’s a splendid book, just crammed to the gills with projects and thinkers all but unknown to the Anglosphere, and I’d recommend to you in any case. But what really caused my jaw to hit the floor was the following passage, concerning Abraham Moles and Élisabeth Rohmer’s 1972 Psychologie de l’espace:
“Architecturally, [Moles and Rohmer] projected the widespread use of innovative concrete and metal infrastructures, with demountable cellular elements, à la Yona Friedman, Paul Maymont, Constantinos Doxiadis [a symposiarch of the time who apparently mounted conferences on cruise liners wandering the Greek islands (!), and who also makes a cameo in Grady Clay’s Close-Up] and others. These structures literally contained and held in a state of equilibrium the structural/phenomenological split described above: the infrastructures were rationally planned, while the elements within them were ‘permutational’ and appropriable…
Orchestrating these various experiences would become the main occupation of the artist of the future, an aesthetician cum development engineer who would design ‘an aesthetic structuralism of fragments of the environment.'”
While specifically architectural here, Busbea makes it clear that these ideas were in the air, across domains and disciplines. Of course such notions were already a few years old, having entered the communal imaginary at least as far back as Peter Cook’s Plug-In City drawings of 1964. What’s new here is the emphasis on orchestration, on the crucial if rather sharply circumscribed definition of “designer” as someone who works at the seams, assembling meaningful and functional momentary constellations from the available kit-of-parts. And (at least to my ears) what does that sound like but this?
[A] valid and a valuable, if relatively minimalist, role for the experience designer: crafting the seams between the distributed components of a product/service, such that they enhance the perception of the whole.
Yeah, that’s me, from last summer’s “On the ground, running,” an article which devotes much of its length to the argument that user experience is best supported by the “widespread use of [open] infrastructures, with demountable cellular elements.” This is apparently an argument which resonates with the broader UX community at the moment; “On the ground, running” remains the single most-linked article I’ve ever published on Speedbird.
The particular irony is that if we’ve – I’ve – made the case that this dynamic emerges from some unique configuration of technical possibilities latent in our own times, well, in Moles and Rohmer we see the selfsame ideas, articulated close-on forty years ago, in the midst of a profoundly different technosocial milieu and set of circumstances. Maybe this wouldn’t come as such a hammer blow if my own education wasn’t so half-assed, but there you go.
Of course, it’s possible that they, like poor crazy Yona Friedman, were simply too far out ahead of the curve, and that certain material and social facts on the ground had to catch up with rhetoric before any such design or conception of the designer could become viable. I like to think that this is in fact what’s happened…but I’ve gotta tell you, Busbea’s book sure makes me wonder what other putatively “innovative” aspects of contemporary Anglophone culture have been decisively prefigured by thinkers whose work remains buried like landmines – or treasure chests – in the marginal literatures of other languages.