Care describes that aspect of the human condition that makes us spend time and resources on people and situations beyond our mere survival. Care is an essential aspect of design, motivating why we design things, things that take care of aspects of our lives, but things that we in turn need to take care of.
(a) the ontological, which names the more general care displayed by humans about their activities and how they live, that both motivates design and which all designs employ in order to have a use value;
Martin Heidegger defines humans as beings for whom their existence is an issue. We question why things exist, even ourselves. We are concerned not only about why but also how things exist, how we should live. We do not just blindly go about living, but instead care about our quality of life. Designing things that improve our everyday lives seems to be one outcome of this fundamental attitude toward how we live our lives. Or, to put it the other way round, because humans are concerned about being well and not just well-being, we design.
In Heidegger’s account, this existential concern does not only lead to what is these days called mindfulness. Instead, it can result in its opposite. If I am concerned about my existence, I will focus on certain aspects of my activities in order to enhance them. To do this, I must attend away from other aspects of my existence, trusting that they will keep on performing reliably in the background. My care for some things (people or activities) makes me less careful about others. Heidegger’s phenomenology of everyday life describes how humans become absorbed in the activities they are concerned about. At these moments, designed artifacts are only minimally present as functional offerings: a hammer is there only to someone engaged in activities that involve hammering, and only as the capacity to hammer, not so much as a thing in itself. Heidegger’s famous account of the ready-to-hand versus the present-at-hand notes that equipmental things only manifest as material objects with measurable qualities when they fail to function as expected within an action that a human cares about. At those moments of breakdown, physical things jut back up into perceptual experience; humans are made to shift their concern from whatever they were doing to this particular thing and its material properties (see Section “Care of designed artifacts”). In this sense, Heidegger suggests that scientific ways of knowing only concern the materialistic aspects of broken things, missing the dynamic way things exist in everyday life.
The kind of equipment upon which Heidegger based his early philosophy, like shoes and jugs, were the outcomes of slow systems of craft evolution. Design can be understood as the project of deliberately manipulating the relation between what is ready-to-hand and present-at-hand in order to direct what we as users of such designed artifacts, communications, and environments care about. Product semantics and system interfaces can be designed for certain groups of users to function intuitively, allowing the designed artifact to withdraw behind the activity it enables. But they can also be designed to draw attention to themselves, creating appreciative moments of delight, or presenting users with pleasurable or cautionary challenges.
Elaine Scarry (a philosopher of literature who has also written about artifact creation) has observed that well-designed objects manifest knowledge of the humans they are designed to service. They embody in their physical form and interaction capacities not only physical aspects of human factors, but also a sensitivity to human foibles: a stepladder will have a notice informing users not to use the top rung as a step lest they fall; a door will be accompanied by a door closer for forgetful passers-through; a car will beep until the driver takes care to fasten their seat belt; a website process will auto-complete a form for you, but also prompt you for confirmation of what it has done. Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, influenced by Martin Heidegger, characterized this aspect of designing as “breakdown anticipation,” making designed artifacts seem “smart” by not only performing their designed functions but also having capacities to assist users when things go wrong.
Digital artifacts can make literal these animistic qualities in things; programming allows devices to literally contain a range of interaction scenarios in their “memories” and even remember particularities about certain users’ patterns of use; and then devices can speak to their users, and wearables can even touch them. In this way, there is a continuum between the way analog devices manifest care for their users through their human-centered design form on the one hand and robotics on the other.
Design enhances the value of the things we use to conduct our everyday activities by building care into the form and mechanisms and interactions of those things (as just described in Section “Care by designed artifacts”). However, Heidegger’s philosophy indicates that precisely by functioning carefully, those things withdraw into the background (see Section “Ontological care”). Paradoxically, things that are valuable to us for enabling us to do the things we value tend not to attract our attention as needing care in their turn. This is perhaps why we are happy to buy a newer version of something that will do more for us even if we were happy with the previous one.
As David Pye has noted, design, as the art and science of mass production, is the workmanship of perfection, aspiring to create self-contained products that are efficient and convenient. The objective is what Albert Borgmann calls the “device paradigm,” in which artifacts service their users almost imperceptibly. In this context, designers try to circumvent the need for users to care for these devices by making them as durable and reliable as possible within the constraints of fixed consumer price points.
Borgmann’s advice to designers concerned about the unsustainable waste associated with the churn of the device paradigm is the creation of “focal things,” designs that require material interactions in the delivery of their functions. In this way, it is hypothesized, users will notice these designs and value them with active care such as regimes of maintenance and commitments to repair and upgrade. Attracting users to care for their things might involve designing things that are transparent with respect to their maintenance and repair. Or it might mean creating designs that look better with wear and tear rather than worse, acquiring the patina of having been well used, “aging with dignity,” as the Dutch design initiative Eternally Yours put it. It might even mean making things that are more fragile and so demand care. Designers promoting product life extension also try to give designs rich background stories or connect designs in emotional ways to the identity of their owners in order to elicit care. Alternatively, product service systems create business models that service goods to maximize asset productivity.