Phones with Chromosomes

We find ourselves in the Las Vegas crime lab and Grissom finds a strand of hair with a tag on it. He looks at it under the magnifying glass.

A brown hair with a follicular tag. A person’s entire identity balled up in a few nanograms of matter.

Sofia Curtis
Assuming one’s identity can be wholly quantified by our DNA.

Well, genetically, it can. We’re completely programmed as soon as the sperm hits the egg.

Sofia Curtis
So we’re defined at a cellular level?

More or less.

Sofia Curtis
No. Identity is the totality of our life experiences and our brain neurons process our relationship to the world and each other.

I stand corrected. DNA is what we are, not who we are.

Sofia Curtis
What we are never changes. Who we are never stops changing.

Yeah. Whether we like it or not.

Our existence is shaped through the relations and interactions we have with the world around us. DNA provides us with a framework, the base to start building on. The details and characteristics, the fleshing up of our lives are added through the relationships we share with our surroundings

So let us put this in terms I, as a designer, feel more comfortable with. The DNA, the What we are is our backdrop, our empty canvas, and the relationships we create with our ambience composes the image depicted on this backdrop, the self we reflect to the world, the Who we are becoming. Our colour palette is defined by the people and things we choose to interact with; who do we choose as our friends, mentors, colleagues, do we choose to hang around our childhood neighbour whom we have known all our memorable lives, or do we seek new social experiences via Twitter, do we choose to go for the 8-bit gig or the barn party, do we ride the fixie bike to work, sway in a bus or sit nervous in a car, do we buy our cheap t-shirts from Zara, H&M or Bershka, are we the Window or the Mac guy. These components, some simple and seemingly insignificant and some that bear greater influence, together they form a pattern characteristic to us, they form the hues in our palette. The way you combine these elements or colours with each other will then form your image, your self-portrait. With time your interests and relationships will shift and so also the tones in your palette. The portrait of you is continuously changing just like a Van Gogh
painted over and over.

Each product/brand communicates thoughts and feelings, a certain tone. If the tone is in harmony with the colours in our palette we will feel comfortable linking these emotions to our self-portrait. Through products we tap into a sort of cultural opportunity, or as put by Douglas Holt, we buy into an identity myth. We buy a product to experience the story it entails.

The identity myth, well performed, provides the audience with little epiphanies—moments of recognition that put images, sounds, and feelings on barely perceptible desires. Customers who find this kind of identity value in a brand forge intensive emotional connections. Emotional attachment is the consequence of a great myth. (Holt, 2004)

To keep the myth alive a brand needs to continuously adapt to the shifting currents in society, the shifting hues. Douglas Holt’s study on the Coca Cola brand shows how Coke’s myth changed according to the social challenges of each period and so carried on as an iconic brand. In the 1950s Coke celebrated America’s triumphs against Nazi Germany in Word War II, promoting the American way of life. In the early 1970s Coke shifted to heal and furnish the world with love in a fractured post Vietnam society. The 1980s shifted the attention to racial divisions, turning Coke into an elixir of universal tolerance. These tonal shifts and the way Coke responded to the changes of the society displays characteristic that closely assimilate that of a living organism. A being overcoming challenges presented to him by changes in his environment. While my body will push out a fever to combat bacteria, Coke rides on the waves of peace anthems. Both acting in interest of the same motive – self preservation.

If a product or brand can exhibit characteristics of an organism. Could this organism have an identity? A certain smile?

For the sake of argument, let us pretend non-agentive objects have a DNA and cast them as their own narrative protagonists. In doing this we adapt ‘the what we are’ and ‘who we are’ distinction to a product. The DNA of a product is its bare framework, a summary of what it is for, the rudimentary tasks it performs.

a table – an elevated surface
a helmet – head protection
a cup – a volume to contain matter

The Who of the product is shaped by contextual characteristics, how and in what way it performs these tasks. Who the cup is, is formed by the relationships the object has with the world, its emotional and physical characteristics.

The designer, the engineer, the assembly team, the marketers, each one will reflect part of their identity/story to the product, each will leave traces of their colours. The Who of the product is thereby being composed. Say a marketing manager for a promotion chooses an actor from his favourite cheesy drama show, meanwhile the location scout selecting the setting, chooses an abandoned factory where his grandfather used to work. We are introduced to these distinctive elements of their lives through the ad they are shooting even though we might not be aware of their significance. We see the product in a context shaped by the marketing team and we merge it with the mental images this creates in our consumer minds.

Often as a designer we would like to carry our personal colours to the eventual consumer. We want to maintain a certain purity, an integrity of our creation. Should the designer act as a steward of his products ensuring that the ‘product essence’, the way the product was initially imagined to be, is maintained or do we let the product find its own way, letting the currents shape its soul? As a parent of a few teenage products it has become clear that the task of preserving this essence is rarely possible. Even before introducing a concept to less controllable factors like engineers and marketing the project continuously evolves and grows. It might sometimes get pimples, maybe a new hairstyle or a new hobby that results in a broken arm. Be it a happy accident, divine mistake as coined by Warhol or regular concept development, they all take part in building up a product, shaping its character.

In scriptwriting when developing a character for a story Syd Field writes in his book Screenplay; “you separate the components of his/her life into tow basic categories: interior and exterior. The interior life of your character takes place from birth up until the time your story begins. It is a process that forms character. The exterior life of your character takes place from the moment your film begins to the conclusion of the story. It is a process that reveals character.”

The character of the object, its interior life is shaped through the design process, the context it grew up in shapes its emotional past or the specific set of hues it emits. As a consumer you are presented with an object with a history, a product with ‘real’ experiences, the experiences of the designer, the engineer, the sales guy… The story you share with the object begins with, as Syd Field calls it, its exterior life, you interact with the product revealing its character in a new way. As in film, the story of our character does not only have one conclusion, the one imagined by the director, but it evokes numerous endings, as many as there are viewers or users.

The object sets a basis for a social link, a shared emotion, a shared passion. Through these communal hues we are re-establishing a sort of communal embeddedness, an emergence of neotribalism (Maffesoli, 1996). Take the Lomo tribe as an example. The experience around Lomo is a joint construction of the reality, a shared feeling about what is going on around the tribe supported by the collective (re)construction of its meanings. The Lomo camera was introduced in 1984 as a cheap low-tech full plastic camera. Now the Lomography phenomenon promotes themselves as a global community whose strong passion is creative and experimental analogue film photography. Photography is heavyweight, serious, demanding and difficult. Lomography is charming, easy, nice, happening. Because the newly appropriated meaning to the Soviet camera is common only to the tribe, it lends an added identity to this tribe and thus to the plastic camera as well. Together we as users will continue shaping the story of the product in its exterior life, revealing its character in new ways.

The interior and exterior life of the product shape Who the product is. All of us, from concept to consumption, contribute in creating/fabricating a life, a collective identity for the object. By embedding our experiences we give the object a past, a story to share with us, a way for us to interact on an emotional level. For those of you who were expecting the chromosome equipped communication devices with morphogenic capabilities, it is now quite time for that yet. However, the morphic force is within you, it is us that come to shape the objects we interact with. You are part of the objects quickly morphing life form, its evolution.