No one needed an iPad before they needed one. Or did they need it and just not know? Is there a difference? Asked differently, did Steve Jobs fill a need or create one?
The answer isn’t simple, and how you think about the issue can reveal a lot about your view of knowledge, persuasion, and even reality. We’re gettin’ deep!
In the field of rhetoric, the iPad question looks more like this: How do rhetorical situations happen? Do we create rhetorical situations or do they exist in the world waiting to be found?
To refresh, a rhetorical situation (as defined by Lloyd Bitzer) is:
“A complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence.”
Whoa. What does that mean in English?
A rhetorical situation is a context in which a successful argument can occur. The important parts of a rhetorical situation are a problem that can be solved with rhetoric (can’t argue with the weather), an audience that can be persuaded (can’t argue with zombies), and a context convenient for rhetoric (can’t argue during a loud rock concert). For a thorough explanation, check out my introduction to rhetorical situations.
If and only if you have all of those elements, you can respond with an argument.
Bitzer argued that rhetors find rhetorical problems (or exigences) in the world, and respond by resolving them. Voila! Rhetorical situation. But another scholar, Richard Vatz, argued that rhetorical situations are created by the rhetor and are not found “out there” in the world.
Per usual, both academics are wrong. And they’re a little bit right. (They’re wrought.) Let me explain…
Michelangelo’s David and Steve Jobs’s iPhone have many things in common. Both are quintessential examples of the things they represent—”man” and “smart phone,” respectively. Both come from the minds of geniuses. Both have curves in all the right places.
Both are beautiful.
Yet there is a major difference between the two—one that demands stating, one that should inform the evaluation of digital infotecture. David is art. The iPhone is not.
Michelangelo’s masterpiece is meant to be looked at, studied, contemplated. Its purpose is to show viewers an ideal man.
And while I admit to occasionally staring at my iPhone in awe of Jony Ive’s design, satisfying my contemplative nature is not its purpose. Its purpose is to make calls and, well, “there’s an app for that.”
David’s purpose is its meaning. The iPhone’s is its utility.
Art is an end in itself. Design is not.
When evaluating information design, it’s important to understand the aesthetics behind the design—insomuch as aesthetics concerns itself with what is beautiful (though not exclusively). People like beautiful things, beautiful experiences.
But it’s equally important to understand the intended function of the information. Is it meant for comparison? For quick reference? For deep study?
Beauty and utility. Both are necessary for good design, for eloquent information. Without the former, people won’t care. Without the latter, it won’t matter how much they care because they won’t be able to access the data.
A design, like a building or a man, should have integrity. That integrity comes from understanding the differences between art and design.