crafting the form of individual components but are focused on how they interact with people and the overall system.
By any measure, the definition of a product is less clear now than in the past and even within the design community there are opposing definitions. This variety of viewpoints is a normal consequence of changes in technology and society, which have in turn changed our relationship to products. Is a product defined by its form, its physical or virtual representation? By our individual customization and recombination of those forms? Or is it defined through use, through the interactions and experiences that people have through it? Stewart Brand has pointed out the beautiful plurality found in the word “building,” which refers to “the action of the verb BUILD” and “that which is built.” Although we don’t have a single term to so elegantly combine the definitions of a product, we can take from it the lesson that use and form are always irrevocably combined.
The definition of a product has evolved but how can an individual product change over time? If a product is partially defined through use then what is the role of the designer in shaping that use? Can a designer dictate evolution through form, or is something more complicated happening when people use products?
The Relationship Between People and Products
You may have noticed that using a new product can change the way you do things. Not only the new functional capabilities it provides, but the other things that happen because of it. For example, when I made the switch from using a landline telephone to a cell phone it not only allowed me to make calls from anywhere, it changed the nature and content of those calls. I am now more likely to talk on the phone while doing something else, more likely to answer even when I am too busy to talk, and the conversations I