The Strange Attraction of Repulsion

I enjoyed Donald A. Norman’s chapter titled “Three Levels of Design” because the author allows himself to indulge in speculation and contradiction. He posits that their are inherent tensions in designing an object; design sometimes involves trade-offs between utility, prettiness, and a representation of the self. It’s not such a straightforward argument to make, but I’ve never thought straightforward narratives are all that valuable. Norman’s rhetoric echoes his argument. He argues for multitudes of design by calling his own assumptions into question and putting forth the experiences of others. Norman creates an affect of confusion and then guides you through the chaos, just like his Diesel salesperson.

The aspect of “Three Levels of Design” that resonated with me the most was Donald’s discussion of film at the very end of the chapter. He suggests (and I agree with him) that commercial films sometimes sacrifice their artistry to appeal to a larger audience and gain greater commercial success. I think this is connected to his earlier comment that some people prefer ugly art to pretty art. I’ve found that characters in art films tend to have rougher lives than their blockbuster counterparts. There is an audience for stories where characters are broken and tortured for the sake of art, but this audience is smaller than the “happy ending” crowd. Celluloid cruelty can be roughly split between films that are designed to shock (the Saw franchise) and those that rotate around an artistic vision  (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover). The audience for these films isn’t necessarily sociopathic. There’s a deep human need for representations of struggle against horror and the ugliness of these films responds to that need. Designing a good object is difficult, because enunciating what this “good” word mean is fraught with difficulties. And sometimes we aim towards repulsion.

 

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