Designers against the iPodization of society

By Antonio Larosa.

(Article previously published by Contract magazine in 2007).

I realized early in life long before I went to design school the importance that design has in people’s lives. Designing original greeting cards for friends in middle school was my way to lift other kids’ spirits. Designing places to sit, eat, and sleep away from cold and muddy campgrounds as a scout was a fun challenge to keep us campers happy. Designing a new puppet theater for a town that had been completely destroyed by an earthquake helped to cheer up the town’s children. All these actions had something in common other than simply making people happy: They were increasing interpersonal communication. Somehow, I had the feeling that one day I was going to be in the “making-people-cheerful-with-my-ideas” business, but I did not know yet that the profession was called “design.”

A few years ago on a business trip to New York, I took a taxi to the airport and other than to ask my destination and tell me the fare, the driver did not say one word to me. At the airport many people seated at the gates stared blank-faced at the giant flat-screen television, while others were absorbed watching movies on their portable DVD players. Many were talking on cell phones; some worked on laptops or busied themselves with PDAs. And others were occupied tuning out everyone with their iPods.

Oh well, I thought, I have a five-hour flight and someone on the plane will want to have a conversation about life, work, or current affairs. Unfortunately, I was dead wrong. Some designer had the brilliant idea to equip every seat on the plane with an individual TV offering a selection of 30 channels. There was no need for conversation during the flight either. As I checked into my hotel, I realized that I had spent nearly the entire day being around thousands of people, yet the only human interaction I had was a few words spoken to a half-attentive person. I became seriously concerned about the future of our society. People are so focused on global warming, recycling, and terrorism, but they do not realize there is another fundamental human need being threatened here. We are losing basic interpersonal communication skills. People are so busy gabbing on their cells, texting, or popping into Web chat rooms that we are losing the ability or desire to say a few words to the person standing next to us. Many are fine with talking to strangers over the Internet, yet the thought of speaking to someone in person turns them mute.


I wondered what caused people to not want to interact any longer. Initially, I blamed this trend on the high-tech gadgets that keep us so screen-focused. Then, I realized that even before the hand-held electronic era, personal interactions were already being derailed by bad designs of public spaces and furniture. Some designers create gadgets to help us avoid talking to each other. Others design buildings and cities that keep us from interacting by eliminating or minimizing public spaces. Even the interiors of cars and planes now maximize our own personal comforts, thus helping us to avoid interacting with other human beings.

I realized that designers can be blamed for the lack of relationships between people and for the lack of communication in society in general. Designers are failing to do what design is all about: We should strive to make people happy and comfortable in their environments, yes. But we also must take care that if the level of comfort is reached only by isolating people from one another, the interaction element that is so essential to keeping us human is suffering. And it’s a shame.

Perhaps my theory is flawed, but I am certain that designers can make the world a better place. I definitely believe designers can help reverse the “my space” trend by designing better public spaces and furniture that foster relationships instead isolation. Good design can encourage people to want to interact. I hope more designers are going to follow this direction.

Think of the buildings designed by Rem Koolhaas or Frank Gehry: They have a power over people. Like giant magnets, these structures attract people to come closer, investigate, and talk about what they see. Once I was standing by Gehry’s Experience Music Project building in Seattle, and a stranger next to me smiled and said, “I don’t know what it’s all about, but this stuff [the building] it’s almost better than rock ‘n’ roll.” There we were, two strangers striking up a conversation over a building. I thought it was wonderful, and I started hoping that one day good design might just bring people back together again just like rock ‘n’ roll did 60 years ago.

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