Review: The Language of Things

The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects by Deyan Sudjic, director of Design Museum in London, is a curious, interesting book. It looks at the world of objects through several lenses: language, archetypes, luxury, fashion, and art. Some of these (language, archetypes) I found more interesting than others (fashion), but it has some smart ideas about the objects that surround us, and how we should design them.

The first section on language deals with design as

the language with with to shape…objects and to tailor the messages they carry. The role of most sophisticated designers today is as much to be storytellers, to make design that speaks in such a way to convey those messages, as it is to resolve formal and functional problems.

And what are those messages? They are about who we are (“[Objects] are what we use to define ourselves, to signal who we are, and who we are not”); what the object is trying to tell us about itself (“what an object does…how much it is worth…how to switch it on”); to emotional and cultural values. Objects, Sudjic writes, mean more than just their functions and surface, and design is the means to “shape perceptions of how objects are to be understood.”

Objects that do this very well become archetypes, products that almost become a category of objects. Archetypes are designed in such a way as to “suggest a personality, to provide clues as to how to use them, and to make the most of their tactile potential.” Sudjic notes, in one of my favorite lines of the book, that “If an object comes with an extensive instruction manual, you can be fairly confident it’s never going to become an archetype.” And it isn’t just how an object looks and feels, but how it is used that is an aesthetic consideration as well.

Sudjic says that designers should consider archetypes when designing because

By working within the framework of archetypes, there is the possibility of bringing some psychological and emotional depth to the design of objects. Even if our possessions do not age well, and we continually replace them, designs that evoke archetypes offer a consoling sense of continuity. They introduce a read-made history for the object. This is not the same as a literal recreation of an archaic style: an electric light in the form of a candlestick. But electric light can be designed to suggest the memory of the kind of light we remember experiencing as a child.

In the third part of the book, Sudjic offers his take on luxury in an age when very few things are scarce. “Luxury,” he writes, now “depends on finding new things to do that are difficult.” It is details that make an object luxurious, and the object cannot be too easy to maintain. We like beautiful objects because it makes us seem beautiful too, and designers should look to jewelry for cues: “Jewelry has a long history of addressing the emotional and tactile interactions between people and things. This is an interaction which every kind of personal object must succeed in if it is going to acquire an emotional resonance, but few manage it.”

The final section on art, looks at design’s relationship to art. “At a fundamental level, while art is useless, design is useful,” Sudjic writes, and the less useful a design, the higher status it obtains. “Usefulness is inversely proportional to status. The more useless an object is, the more highly valued it will be.” This is a fascinating observation.

There is another distinct difference between art and design according to Sudjic: criticism. “It is the ability of the artist to question and be critical that justifies what he does. For a designers to make a critical object is to bite the hand hand that feeds him. Without commerce, design cannot exist.” I’d counter that designers are some of the most critical people I know, but their criticism is focused before an object is made, in the lead-up to the object creation, not embedded within the object itself.