A 2011 lecture by Stelac at the University of Warwick that explores his work in the framework of circulating flesh, fractal flesh and haptic flesh.
a notebook of thoughts from GMD Studios' Brian Clark on experience design, storytelling & phenomenology
Despite my love of dead German philosophers and obscure art theories, I’m a pretty practical guy (for a mad scientist.) I don’t see a phenomenal work mindset as an abstraction; I see it as a framework that actually makes real work better. I look at the way these ideas revolutionized art and science and philosophy, I read the words our predecessors have written about how it changed the way they thought about life and art, and I wonder: isn’t it time for the Networked Age to absorb in those same concepts? All it takes is another translation of phenomenology in a way that makes sense to the now, so let me start with a provocation and then humbly offer up a translation of minds greater than mine that left these gifts for us we’ve failed to unwrap.
As a community, we spend far too much time talking about the form of work, as if it were the central innovation of Networked Age – look at all the “new” things we can make, all the “new” ways we can stick them together, all the new words we need to describe all these new things. This is natural, because as creators we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make things and what to make (and should.) Perhaps we can get further if, just for a moment, we focused on the real innovation of the Networked Age: audiences will never be the same again, but human nature hasn’t changed.
Somewhere in the world, a person encounters a designed thing – they see the architecture, they load the webpage, their eyes glance at the billboard, whatever. We’re witnessing a moment in time when what we’ve designed meets the people we designed it for: the phenomena of the work in context with both the world and the person.
As creators, we rightly spend a lot of time talking about that designed object and what we believe it means: brand strategies, story bibles, authorial intent, etc. But, we must acknowledge to each other that all of that stuff is invisible to audience – it lies beneath the surface of the world of experience. We can imagine the “serious artist” who’s work is unintentional (and tragically) ironic, the Internet is full of that kind of work, and use that as an example of just how irrelevant that hidden strategic structure can be to what the design actually means to people.
Thinking about the phenomena of our work means focusing on the context of how people experience it. Left to chance, some of that context might distract from the moment of meaning and some might enhance that moment of meaning. Phenomenal work asks you to think of the context of the experience as something that can be designed as part of the work. When people in the Networked Age talk about designing for relevancy or discovery or surprise or “shareability” they are describing aspects of the phenomena of work. When these factors work together well, the experience of the person with our work becomes richer and more meaningful … and that unlocks the most magical of all effects.
We only know about the world (or ourselves) because of our experiences, and we only understand those experiences when we craft a story to describe it to ourselves: this is the moment of meaning. Because we’re social, we’re also wired to share the stories of our meaningful experiences with each other and we’re wired to find the stories of other people’s meaningful experiences as valuable as actual experiences. Science has confirmed this: what happens in the brain during an experience, when we’re telling the story of an experience, and when we’re hearing the story of an experience are remarkably similar. I think it is one of the magical things about the human experience.
And that’s exactly the part of us amplified the most in the Networked Age, the part that surprised Internet creators so much they felt they needed a phrase like “social media” to describe it. Never in human history have our stories of meaningful experiences been as universally available to each other as they are right now. Tomorrow it will be even better. And all of that starts with the meaningful experiences that we could be designing for each other, because all storytelling emerges from the phenomena of experience.
I didn’t make this up and I didn’t invent this. I only re-discovered it and re-translated it. And in the coming months, I need to prove how practically useful it is for predicting almost every phenomenon of the Internet we’re grappling with as creators. And I have to do that by October, when I’ve committed to unveiling this idea in front of a large audience to try to provoke a meaningful new conversation.
Good design is a tangible frament of a world that makes sense. The real world doesn’t make any sense, but good design can help the narrative of an imaginary revolution prove that it could be.
Artist Shepard Fairey once wrote, “The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment.” Fairey’s view of what that means for an artist was most heavily influenced by Martin Heidegger and his view of phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” This is the world of designed objects that are more like the "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" stickers that attempt to wake you up to YOU and to the very real experiences around you. That stands in contrast to what Guy Debord called “the spectacle” – the world of images that attempt to replace real experiences and are designed to distract and coerce rather than empower.
This wasn’t at all the way Husserl thought about it as he was first forming his theories of phenomenology, largely revealed through a letter he wrote to German artist Hofmannstahl. For him, art and the “aesthetic intuition” of the viewer were meant to be removed from mundane experience – that, in fact, if a piece of art only reminds you of the real experiences around you, it isn’t “pure art”.
Now, here’s a contrast artists of any stripe can get their arms around! Are you making work because you want to “wake people up” to reality, or because you want to “transport them away” from reality?
One of the great joys of having over 100 years of thinking and writing by philosophers, artists, psychologists and sociologists on the subject of phenomenology to explore is this: they are not of one mind, there are more than one frame for thinking about how experiences work. Personally, I believe either path can equally lead to phenomenal work – because, as an artist, you’re asking yourself about the subjective experiences you want the audience to have. Those are the right questions to be asking yourself, as that’s the road that leads to phenomenal work.
In societies where modern conditions of productions prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation … The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.
The development of a phenomenology of art is the very potential of a development of the concept of art per se, of the concept of pureness as well as of the intuitive artist. This is an enormous area of potential development within a movement, which after so many years still has a legitimate placement in the history of philosophy and of mankind.
One morning in a hotel lounge, I caught one of the best idea pitchers in advertising busily scribbling notes in the corner of a print-out of a PowerPoint presentation we’d be giving in a few hours on a multi-million dollar project pitch. He was writing jokes, jokes that he might use to “get out” of a slide if it wasn’t well received, or to soften the delivery of the slide before it even came up on the screen. He wasn’t rewriting the presentation, he was thinking through all the ways the presentation might go in the room (and how he might adapt to those situations.) Most of those he didn’t even use in the room, but a few of them he did.
As a creator, you’ve probably been in pitch meetings before too, meetings where the outcome is very important to you (and your project.) This means you’ve probably encountered the concept of “meeting theater”. Meeting theater is not the presentation itself, but the pageantry around the delivery of that presentation in a room full of real people whose reactions you can’t entirely predict. It is also one of the simplest examples of phenomenal work – thinking about not just “the object” but also “the experiencing of the object”.
In just advertising (as an industry), I’ve seen remarkably subtle and intuitive experience design from pitch teams. They take into account the temporality of the situation – you tempo a 9AM Monday meeting very differently than a 4PM Friday meeting. They take into account the optics of team – who’s in the room, how are they dressed, what do they say about the nature of the agency? They take into account history – is the client currently in love with you, or are you going into this meeting after a series of painful ones?
Why? Because they are deeply invested in that moment of meaning, and they understand intuitively that the meaning (and reaction) is going to emerge from the client’s mind not theirs. And because they understand they can design those aspects of the experience to enhance the meaning, they don’t just have to leave them to chance. Even the use of the phrase “theater” to describe the thinking is a fascinating admission that the theater of a meeting is different than the content of a meeting.
If thinking about the theater of a meeting is so common, why can’t we think (and talk) about “website theater” or “television theater” or “Kickstarter theater” or “conference presentation theater” with equal ease?
We live in a spectacular society, that is, our whole life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. As a commodity the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience.
Buckminster Fuller, while contemplating the nature of humanity and existence, once famously wrote, “I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process.” Bucky was, in fact, arguing that we are all verbs, that we’re defined by our actions and come to know ourselves through those actions. This is the heart of the phenomenological concept of intentionality, retold in a more poetic way.
Sometimes, we might think of the audience as someone we can strap into a chair and force to witness our work, like poor Alex undergoing the Ludovico technique in “A Clockwork Orange,” like an empty vessel that we can fill with meaning. Meaning doesn’t actually come into being that way, shoved from the media object into the brain without interpretation or synthesis or reflection. Instead, if we treated them as a verb, we might help them get to that realization that Fuller was describing with “I seem to be.”
Shepard Fairey is a great example of that perspective, all the way back to his earliest “Andre the Giant Has a Posse" stickers. In his 1990 manifesto, he explicitly called his work phenomenological and described it as:
"The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities."
Parse the words of Fairey, and you know exactly the verbs he was hoping to help bring to the surface: react, contemplate, search for meaning, interpret, reflect. The language of those words is very different than what you often hear among designers, who are more likely to talk about use, watch, view, click, listen.
Before the age of interactivity in design, this would have been an obscure philosophical dialog, but today it isn’t. Today, I can see the verb of the audience clearly. I can see them react and interpret and search for meaning, on Twitter or their blogs or the Facebook posts. To create phenomenal work, we have to think more like Fuller and Fairey, and embrace that we are all verbs.