By Valerie Casey
Last week, as I was chatting enthusiastically about a new style to my (very cool) hairdresser Amanda, she pulled out a Blackberry to retrieve an email from her tattoo artist in New Haven. Somewhat taken aback, I asked her about her new accessory. She wryly answered: "I'm a businesswoman."
On one level, I m not surprised that Amanda has a Blackberry. She is successful, and certainly Blackberry functionality is useful for a busy stylist. Dressed in her Tokyo-Goth street-couture, it surprised me that Amanda seemed so much cooler and more interesting than my conception of the typical Blackberry user.
We re socialized to recognize products as signs of particular character attributes. Cultural critics hypothesize that consumers acquire particular products to project the attributes associated with those products—in this case of the Blackberry, social importance and business cachet. A product like a Blackberry (or a Louis Vuitton bag, or a Hummer, or any number of such markers) signals social status by proxy.
But in our current cultural vernacular, the Blackberry image has actually become a caricature of itself — the Crackberry addict or the businessman actually feels more self-conscious than esteemed. The irony with which Amanda answered my question made me appreciate her use of the Blackberry as a way to highlight how overly simplistic product-as-social-marker theories can be. Contemporary consumers are not one-dimensional, and their decisions about the gadgets they choose to represent themselves are complex.
Conventional design organizes materials and forms hierarchically in order to appeal to different audience types: authentic materials target more sophisticated and moneyed consumers, and synthetics are generally used for lower-priced goods; the more curvy the form factor, the greater appeal to a younger crowd, while sharper edging and harder corners jibe with maturity. While these conventions&mdashbased on legions of previous products—are still applicable, the canny postmodern consumer's fluency with mass media enables him or her to decode the network of signs used in our product-design language. What emerges is a new consumer type—a post-consumer—who enjoys playing with conventions and roving through social strata.
In our postmodern context, products no longer have essential, innate worth; instead, their value is fluid and determined by context. For instance, Amanda inverted the Blackberry-as-business-marker through use—first highlighting its caricature with her ironic disposition, and then recasting the device as an anti-fashion fashion utility. Forms and materials are less likely to straightforwardly dictate product attributes; now the user's intervention determines its value.
On a higher level still, the aesthetic or artistic modding (DIY) trend demonstrates the momentum post-consumers have built around using products as a canvas to create identities. The modding spectrum ranges from blinged PSPs to retro treatments of PCs and cellphones. These innovations are unique and clever, and their value is measured in social currency in the creator s community—in other words, people mod their gadgets in order to get props from their friends for having something cool.
Rather than having products with fixed status, now the social connotation is much more fluid. When products can stand for anything, the author of its meaning is the user of the product, not its designer.
For product designers, this means the target market is more equivocal than ever before, but it is also more playful. For product developers, the potential buying audience is bigger, but it's also consuming with a more critical eye. And for consumers, while before, the product typed the user, now the user dynamically creates the product through context and use.
Soon we ll see platforms rather than products, open-source systems rather than proprietary networks, limited editions rather than mass production, and models for creating meaning that integrate designer and user. Digital design tools like Ajax and open APIs already allow users and designer to collaborate; hard products are soon to follow. In the words of cultural critic Howard Rheingold, the future is not in hardware devices or software programs, but social practices. And our most defining social practice is creation of self-identity.
Valerie Casey is Creative Director of frog design in New York.
The frog Design Mind column appears every Monday on Gizmodo. Read more frog Design Mind.