I have been writing a lot about philosophy, and in particularly, most recently, Wittgenstein and Gadamer. For me, philosophy directs me towards thinking about my own thinking, and allows me to explore the way in which both I, and others, experience the world. It has made me more sensitive to the dynamic nature of language, and how we derive meaning in the world through language and the context in which it is used. It has allowed, I feel, my thinking to become less rigid, more fluid, and therefore as a result, more creative and insightful, the older I become.
However, I do wonder if some people who are not so fully immersed in this world of philosophy may wonder what it is all about? Maybe it is just a load of pretentious waffle, or maybe there is something there, but the language and way of expressing the insights just too impenetrable and obscure?
For this reason I was delighted to see a post by Brian Clark on experience design, storytelling and phenomenology. Brian posted both the recording of a lecture he gave at the StoryWorld conference in Los Angeles last year, along with his slides.
In this talk, Brian explains how a phenomenological approach to design can help give people a new perspective and stop them from sleepwalking through life. In his words, “we can reawaken people’s sense of wonder.” One example he gives is the groundbreaking project Obey Giant from cutting-edge artist Shepard Fairey. His manifesto is worth reading in full:
The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.
The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.
Many people who are familiar with the sticker find the image itself amusing, recognizing it as nonsensical, and are able to derive straightforward visual pleasure without burdening themselves with an explanation. The PARANOID OR CONSERVATIVE VIEWER however may be confused by the sticker’s persistent presence and condemn it as an underground cult with subversive intentions. Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.
Another phenomenon the sticker has brought to light is the trendy and CONSPICUOUSLY CONSUMPTIVE nature of many members of society. For those who have been surrounded by the sticker, its familiarity and cultural resonance is comforting and owning a sticker provides a souvenir or keepsake, a memento. People have often demanded the sticker merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging. The Giant sticker seems mostly to be embraced by those who are (or at least want to seem to be) rebellious. Even though these people may not know the meaning of the sticker, they enjoy its slightly disruptive underground quality and wish to contribute to the furthering of its humorous and absurd presence which seems to somehow be antiestablishment/societal convention. Giant stickers are both embraced and rejected, the reason behind which, upon examination reflects the psyche of the viewer. Whether the reaction be positive or negative, the stickers existence is worthy as long as it causes people to consider the details and meanings of their surroundings. In the name of fun and observation.
Shepard Fairey, 1990
And also worth watching an interview with Shepherd where he explains how the project evolved into one fully informed and inspired by phenomenology:
Brian himself has created his own manifesto, designed to inspire a new phenomenological way of approaching design. Rather than myself explain, I would encourage you to watch his presentation, along with his slides. You may wish to check out his own thoughts on his presentation on his blog.
As Brian says, it’s phenomenal work.