Tag Archives: discourse analysis

Why are Japanese lunches so beautiful?

I am a big fan of MUJI, the simple Japanese housewares company. So I was quite interested to read a post by their art director Kenya Hara on the New York Times’s “Room for Debate.”  Hara argues that Japanese people have

…a special ability to focus fully on what’s right in front of our eyes. We tend to ignore what is not an integral part of our personal perspective. We ignore that our cities are a chaotic mess, filled with ugly architecture and nasty signage.

Hara believes that Japanese simplicity is a function partly of this narrow focus. Beautiful designs are better appreciated because of this focus, in Hara’s opinion. (Well known design guru John Maeda also weighs in and argues that the dearness of Japanese food is the primary issue).

A Beautiful Japanese Lunch: New York Times

Philosopher Dennis Dutton argues, interestingly, the American lunch box is of the same instinct: Americans have attempted to make their lunch beautiful but in distinctly different ways. Dutton leaves the symbolic interpretation of these competing “lunch beautifying” methods up to the reader’s imagination.

This reader thinks that by using exterior packaging instead of the food itself, Americans are not beautifying lunch as much as they are obscuring it. Indeed, they even commodifying it by making each lunch, regardless of content, look similar. The content of the lunch itself is irrelevant; whether it is fresh, healthy food or rotting, cheap, fast food, every lunch looks the same in a lunch box.

Perhaps this is indicative of the American spirit if industrialization. Mass production in the Fordist tradition (“You can have whatever colour car you like, as long as it’s black”) is an American value that has been spread around the world. Forget about the content of the thing, instead focus on its packaging, its marketing or its uniformity. This is what Ritzer means by the “McDonaldization of Society.” When the content of a thing matters less than how much of it is sold or how efficient it is to sell it, this is the height of capitalism — and perhaps of American culture.

This is perhaps the essence of why Americans can accept truly horrible food, while the Japanese and the French famously reject it. But it doesn’t explain why Hara thinks Japanese aesthetics are ruled in part by the ability to “focus” on one thing.

Is the Japanese form of capitalism less in need of obscuring and masking than the American? Is ugliness more tolerated by Japanese society and therefore, less of a threat to its form of capitalism?

Discourse analysis and design: reading “texts” for design purposes

Designers are already discourse analysts, they just don’t know it. These designers can produce more innovative ideas by adopting a more systematic approach to their intuitive discourse analysis.

Discourse analysis the practice of deciphering the meaning of “texts.” Anything can be a “text.” Television commercials, Us Weekly, a trial transcript — these are all “texts.” Famous discourse analyses include Michel Foucault’s analysis mental illness, in which he traces how we collectively think about mental illness through “texts” of it, such as “patient charts,” or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
Designers intuitively analyze “texts” all the time, especially designers who work in advertising. They obsessively collect imagery and copy they find interesting. They innovate on this copy or imagery by re-tooling some of the subtle messages in them.

How to systematize discourse analysis “lite” for designers:

  1. Collect more than one genre of “texts”: instead of a single medium, try collecting several media of the same theme. If you’re designing a new toy, for example, gather a TV commercial, a print ad, and a fan’s tribute Web site. These differing “texts” may tell you what is missing in toys, or what toys are unintentionally doing to the parents who buy them.
  2. Look for the “silences” in texts: If you’re designing an online advertising campaign, compare texts on a single theme and ask yourself, “What is not being said?” For example, if you’re targeting women with small children, maybe you’ll find that these women are never painted as actually having personal preferences only “mother preferences.” This is a silence that you can speak to.
  3. The obvious meaning is the tip of the iceberg: If you want to know what an object means in culture, you must look more deeply than the obvious. Most designers understand this intuitively, but sometimes you must make a concerted effort. When you see the famous “Diamonds are forever” ads by De Beers, the obvious meaning is one of romance, but what is the subtle meaning? Romance is fleeting but diamonds? Diamonds are forever. The ad’s brilliance lies in its ability to leverage the symbolism of the world’s hardest substance (the diamond) with the most coveted but ephemeral experience (romantic love).

The other day I was tutoring an adult learner (a highly educated one) about discourse analysis. She complained to me that she well understood quantitative methods, variables, and counting. But she saw discourse analysis as “mumbo jumbo.”

On the surface, discourse analysis looks like mumbo jumbo. But in practice, it is a tool to see both culture and the “reality” we have constructed.

Designers as playwrights: scripting design outcomes

Designers don’t really see themselves as playwrights but in reality, designers are writing scripts – complete with stage directions – for every user. And like all actors, what users really want to do is direct.

The French government learned this the hard way. In a fit of charity, the government decided Africa needed electric light. Noting that African countries often lacked centralized electricity systems, French engineers designed battery-powered lights and sent them to Africa. The lights were designed to be robust systems that could withstand the rugged African countryside. It was envisioned that many owners of these lights would proudly use them for decades. Instead, the engineers delivered lights that were difficult to install, very quickly burned out, and proved almost impossible to repair. Quite a few African homes were then decorated with useless battery packs.

What as the problem? French engineers – despite their noble intent – designed lights that were only useful to docile users. The play they wrote was in three acts:

Act 1: turn on light.
Act 2: burn out light.
Act 3: do nothing with the light ever again.

When I made toast this morning in my kitchen, the script writers for the toaster did not consider the “set” of my kitchen, nor did they consider the supporting actor, my husband.

Their script went something like this:

Act 1: User takes two pieces of toast and places them in the two slots. User pushes down the plunger. Toaster toasts the bread. User waits until bread is cool enough to handle, and places toast delicately on a plate. Curtain. Applause.

But the actual script went something like this.

Act 1: Sam pulls bread out of freezer and then pulls toaster out of the cupboard where they store it. Toaster bottom opens up (again) and spills crumbs all over the floor. Sam plugs in toaster and separates two pieces of frozen bread.

She places only one slice in a slot and presses the plunger. She begins chatting with her husband, not noticing that she chose the wrong slot for a single slice. Toast pops up, decidedly still frozen. Curtain.

Intermission: Getting orange juice

Act 2: Sam moves slice to correct slot and presses plunger again. Toast toasts and pops up. Again, while chatting with her husband, she does not realize the bread is very hot. She burns her fingers on the toast, dropping it. Curtain. Curse words.

Design scripts need to be clear, concise, and above all, consider active users. When you design a product, a print ad, or a Web site, consider the script you are writing. What are your assumptions? What is the “set” of the eventual “play”? Are there supporting characters? Consider how you want your script to end before you start writing it.