Brix’s article challenges the idea that user-centered approach to design is required in order to ensure usable designs. While the article agrees that involving users to design process is one way to do design, it challenges the dominance of user-driven design. For example cultural artifacts are very meaningful but seldom results of user research.
The article approaches the topic through the concept of affordances. The reasoning is that affordances are the basis on which humans interpret objects and that to design means to create meaningful and useful affordances. The article utilizes Peirce’s categorization of sign functions to sort objects into three categories. Peirce distincts three means via which a sign can manifest its meaning: 1) the index, 2) the icon, and 3) the symbol. Indexical sign has a physical connection between the signifier and the signified (e.g. smoke and fire). Iconical sign shares properties with the signified (e.g. a photo of something). Symbolical sign relies on convention or rule (e.g. alphabet).
The article focuses on indexical and symbolical signs/affordances and names the corresponding categories of objects as archetypes and aliens. Archetypes are usually culturally old objects and aliens complex and highly technical objects. The appreciation of the meaning and affordance of archetypical objects is simple and shared by all humans, while understanding new function mediated by high-tech solutions is complex and can have many possible variations. “The task for the alien is to be understood. The task for the archetype is more than this, since it already makes sense. It has to become meaningful.”
According to Brix (he refers to Krippendorf on this definition), user-centered design is about making sense of things. Making sense is different from being meaningful and thus user-centered design is not and according to Brix will not be able to grasp the “poetics of design”. As a result, Brix states that user-centered design can be useful approach when designing mere products and services but it will not result to innovations in design language and strong cultural objects.
Brix seems to have a very strong believe on the power of individual authors to create culture and cultural artifacts. In the end of the article he gives users just the role of perceive and interpret, while the authors select what is meaningful enough to be presented. While this can be true, the statement diminishes the role of ‘normal people’. It is not just trained designers, who design and produce new things. For example, when using tools and designs, people also modify and personify them, i.e. become designers themselves.