Quite possibly the most exciting aspect of today’s post is this rather splendid photo. The rest of it is about product semantics.
After having considered why is difficult to understand the visual (it’s about cognition), the next tricky thing is to understand design as compromise (all design is failure). And the next level of complexity deals with understanding that even geometrically exquisite lines are open to interpretation. That means semantics or the meaning of the thing or the meaning of the parts of things. If you think you somehow
don’t know what that is, you might be surprised that writers like Stephen Bayley have taken a product-semantic approach to discussing design even if they might not have used the term. They earn their pay by making it very interesting and entertaining.
While writers like Krippendorff and Butter are known for the “semantic turn” in design writing in the 1980s, Jochen Gros began work on this approach in the 1970s. ” In this conceptual approach, Gros makes a distinction between the practical functions of a product (and various others such as ergonomical, economical, ecological functions) on the one hand, and the formal and communicative aspects, the so-called product language functions on the other.”
To turn back to Bayley, he wrote in Sex, Drink, Fast Cars about the meaning of Benz’s large radii on the coachwork of their 1970s car. That’s a semantic interpretation exactly in line with Gros’s thinking.
This diagram above shows Gros’s concept in its various parts. Take a moment to read the components.
It makes much more sense if it is filled in with examples. So, using the Rolls Royce as an case (hence the lovely images) we find we can show what each box means in practice. So, read the boxes of the second diagram and match them to the corresponding box in the upper diagram e.g “product” in the upper diagram corresponds to “Rolls Royce” in the lower. It is transport. It is used for driving.
You’ll have to excuse the blank box because as of this afternoon I can’t find the right level of abstraction for “product language functions”. It might mean the purpose of each bit of the usual forms associated with the thing. I am open to comment and criticism here.
If you take any vehicle (or indeed product) you ought to be able to match the levels of the upper diagrams to some level of abstraction in the object and ultimately to the individual surfaces and curves and the elements they define.
Much of the diagram is general to a lot of cars. The bit that gets more interesting and specific is around the lower right boxes. If you agree with me that some cars are hard to parse (I have called them “contemporary vernacular”) then it might that the semantic content of their lower two boxes would rather vague or hard to define or sparse.
The Silver Shadow is easy. That’s why most people will recognise it and have something to say about it. You’d even imagine an author would be tempted to use cars like this in books to convey messages about the characters or events being depicted.
With time a 1976 Ford Cortina will accumulate semantic references (the lowest, rightmost box) whereas a Ford Mondeo today has little semantic content. Ditto anything made by Renault. Or indeed many marques.
Why not take two cars and try to dissect them using this structure. I suggest you pick one of your faves and something on sale right now. What do you find?