Don’t listen to Le Corbusier—or Jakob Nielsen

by amy

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Cheerful software, above all, honors the truth about humanity:

Humans are not rational beings.

A human is a walking sack of squishy meat and liquids, awash in chemicals.

We laugh. We cry. Sometimes we laugh while crying. We love, and hate, and dream about tomorrow while paying no attention to today. We do ridiculous things in pursuit of love or happiness or self-esteem. We sabotage ourselves. We see faces in inanimate objects, clouds, rock formations, and unevenly toasted bread. Then we sell them on eBay.

We pray to giant humans up in the sky. We think that a fly could be our grandmother. We work for free because we’re bored. We create art, dance, and sing even if we are starving. We give to others when we have little, or we give none when we have a lot, even if we gain no clear survival benefit either way.

Rationality’s not all it’s cracked up to be

We can aspire to cold, pure logic—but our lives fall apart if we get there.

People who have had damage to the emotional centers of the brain can’t even decide which pair of shoes to wear. If you—with your intact brain—think harder about a choice, the chances go up that you will make one you regret.

This is what psychology and neuroscience tell us: the beauty and the rot is all mixed up. You can’t have a human without both.

But that doesn’t apply to designers. Does it?

Despite all this, it’s so appealing to think that the work we do can be reduced from infinite uncertainty to finite, scientific certainty.

We think that eye-tracking studies, or any other research, can go beyond telling us what they found and tell us what to do.

There’s nothing wrong with the scientific study of usability. Until you pretend that it’s prescriptive, instead of descriptive. That something good for humans can be reduced to mathematical certainty.

That there is a science for designing.

Then you get engineerism.

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Engineerism is nothing new

This happened before. When this notion occurred architecture, bad things happened:

Home life today is being paralysed by the deplorable notion that we must have furniture. This notion should be rooted out and replaced by that of equipment.

– Le Corbusier, in response to Mme. Savoye’s request to fit an armchair or two into her famous but unlivable Corbusier-designed home

Le Corbusier thought sofas and armchairs were a terrible thing — the softer and cuddlier, the worse.

“What [modern man] wants is a monk’s cell, well lit and heated, with a corner from which he can look at the stars,” he wrote.

He designed what he called “machines for living,” buildings that served all of the functions that a human putatively required.

They were a beautifully austere, ‘scientific’ vision.

They were hated, and abandoned.

People don’t want to live in scientific certainties

Sofas are what people want.

And “machines for living” don’t honor the messiness that a human life represents.

When they have a choice, a person’s home is more than a place that meets their scientifically ascertained needs. It’s a reflection of who they are, and how they want to be. They fill it with things that support their future aspirations, and remind them of the past. Whether they love lofty open rooms and lots of glass, or exposed wooden beams and tiny windows.

Architecture is not just a way to house bodies and fulfill function, but to feel.

Software is no different.

Engineerism is taking over interaction design

The voices of interaction design pretend to be scientists. They take eye tracking studies, and scrolling studies—and never mention how well-done the content in question might be, or whether it was exciting and relevant to the test subject.

“Users don’t scroll.”

“Put content on the left side.”

They argue that the ultimate test of a software design is whether it is usable. Just like Le Corbusier and his army of engineers, they focus on the pretend science of utility.

This is the same as a machine for living in or a well-lit monk’s cell.

We don’t make software our homes, but we spend 7 – 8 hours a day there.

Software cries out for personality, for ornamentation, for delight. To reflect higher aspirations, and evoke emotion.

For designers who don’t think it’s silly to imagine software as a helping hand, rather than a tool to be used.

In short, software cries out for love.


Thanks to Alain de Botton’s fabulous book The Architecture of Happiness, for helping me cement a way to explain the things I felt about design and providing the Le Corbusier quotes. You should read Architecture. Start with this excerpt, which dovetails perfectly with my essay.