What is “soul” in design?

“Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”

— Steve Jobs


Upon completing my master’s thesis almost 10 yrs ago at CMU, on the issue of beauty in interaction design, a classmate jokingly asked what will be my next big topic, presumably for a PhD dissertation (at the time Dick Buchanan dropped some not-so-subtle hints I should go for a design doctorate). In similar spirit I half-jokingly replied, “what is soul in design”. Of course, I never did pursue the doctoral degree, but this issue of soul has been quietly reverberating in the back of my mind lately, as expressed in my talks & articles on “rich experience” and the “aesthetic experience”. I think with those writings in particular I was trying to subconsciously chisel away at the elements of what it means to design for a soulful experience with a digital product (or any product or service or system really).

From What Does Rich Mean: A Deeper Look at the Rich Experience (published in boxesandarrows)

Intelligently crafted, well-intentioned acts of communication that are emotionally satisfying and sensibly organized to meet user goals, thus becoming something memorable and valuable. Ultimately, that is what richness is about—connecting to those core human qualities that define our goals, values, and attitudes for living

From Experiential Aesthetics: A Framework for Beautiful Experience (published in ACM Interactions)

To create the beautiful must involve qualities of inspiration and transcendence that speak to aspirational values held by us as human beings (not mere users or consumers), as we seek to extend and discover something that calls out to an “experience of being fully alive”.

and of course from my original thesis essay:

To combat the ugliness of disruptive, alienating encounters that deprive humans of their ideational, cultural, and personal aspirations is the driving motive for those who strive to create beauty in interaction design.

Hmm, looking back I see some commonalities there! There’s a strong undercurrent for that which is humanizing, life-enhancing, adding to an aesthetic character which is poetic in its graceful expression of visual/behavioral/reflective qualities of a product. There is a profound connection to what the user aspires towards, uniquely situated in the context of the activity and shaped by the qualitative encounter, enabled by the graphics, typography, navigation, utility, and overall service & brand promise delivery. It is what makes the product something that is desired, valued, loved, and instills a sense of gratitude in the user, that makes living without it now unimaginable. But foremost is that aesthetic quality which harmonizes the whole into cohesive blend of rational and imaginative, compelling us to surrender to its potential for enlivening our daily tasks and usage into something sublime and evocative.

So what is soul then, in design? Is it the humanistic expression of a product’s raison d’etre in a diligently nuanced aesthetic totality, resonant with one’s dreams, values, goals? Or perhaps the emotive quality manifest as visual/behavioral/reflective cues that choreograph into a sensorial blend of meaning and utility? Maybe it’s the value of personal connection and surrender to something greater than ourselves which we constantly seek and aspire towards in our daily lives but only rarely discover?

Whatever language maybe used to articulate it, and however it maybe be embodied in our artifacts, “soul” is deeply serious issue warranting further exploration and deliberation.

2 comments

  • I have recently been putting it simply (or intending to anyway) as …
    1. design as “[person] behind the curtain”. It is so special in its form that we KNOW it is human.
    2. design that fits so tightly and wholly into the eco-system for which it was made–holistic.

    but what is missing from the above is, what is soul? and that I would say is the feeling of being connected to the universe around you.

    — dave

  • Thanks Dave…I like the “holistic” and “eco-system” aspects alot. Definitely figures into the concept of “soul in design”, I agree. But I’ll leave it to theologians and philosophers to define “soul” by itself ;-) Not sure I’m ready to tackle that just yet…

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