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Poetic function of design, communication and interactivity

Gustavo Victor Casillas Lavin


María Luisa Pérez Guerrero


José María Monguet Fierro


FIGURE: Interactivity and Communication (Composition: M. Perez)

Can things communicate with us?

Some people talk to their computers, cars, cellphones, even to their microwave ovens. They frequently
demand some specific behavior from these objects or in some way express their emotions to them. The
mainstream judgment in science and technology describes this attitude as animism, the belief system that
attributes souls to animals, plants and other entities like everyday objects and manufactured articles.

With a different perspective, Fernando Martin Juez (1) suggest that this process of communication
and the flowing state that sometimes engage people in the use of everyday objects are expressions of a
participating consciousness, described by Berman as a kind of consciousness that: "... involves merger, or
identification, with one's surroundings, and bespeaks a psychic wholeness..." (2).

Beyond the idea of a participating consciousness, there remain questions about what happens
through the use of things created by designers. Is an interactive procedure performed with the object itself
or with the designer? Does this interaction actually involve a communication process? Is the user
communicating to the designer through the object? How are interaction, communication and design related
to each other?
In this paper we will try to explore the links between design, communication and interactivity, in
regard that interaction process implies the change of the entities involved, and this is not necessarily an
issue frecuently associated with communication or design.

Is there poetic in design?

Jordi Llovet proposes one interesting approach to analyzing the relationship between design and
communication (3). Llovet recognizes in the first place that objects, even if voiceless, bring some 'sign
value' beyond their proposed functionality and that this is a semiotic phenomenon. Secondly, he brings
Jakobson's theory of communicative functions to the analysis of design and asserts that the poetic function
is the essence of design.

Roman Jakobson distinguishes six communication functions, each related with an aspect of the
communication process. One of the six functions is always the dominant function in a message and usually
is related to the nature of the message. The aspects or dimensions of the communication process in
Jakobson's schema are:

1. context
2. message
3. sender
4. receiver
5. channel
6. code

And the functions to which they relate are:

1. referential (linked to contextual information)

2. poetic (linked to the message, autotelic)
3. emotive (linked to the sender, self-expression)
4. conative (linked to the receiver, vocative or imperative addressing of receiver)
5. phatic (linked to the channel)
6. metalingual (linked to the code)

In poetry, the dominant function is the poetic function: the focus is on the message itself.
According to Jakobson the main characteristic of poetry is "the projection of the principle of equivalence
from the axis of selection to the axis of combination" (4). In plain words, it implies that poetry successfully
integrates form and function.

In a language, some words are equivalent to other words or combinations of other words;
consequently most meanings can be expressed in several different ways. The 'axis of selection' concept is
applied to the process of choice of one of the possible words to express something.

On the other side, individual signs can be collected together to form compound signs, for instance:
groups of sounds (and the letters to represent them) form words, groups of words form sentences, sentences
form narratives, etc. The constructed signs are called syntagms and each element collected may be a
paradigm. The 'axis of combination' concept refers to this process of construction of syntagms.

The distinctive feature of the poetic function is the concept of 'equivalence' or coherency between
the selection process and the combination of the elements chosen in a set. There is no poetry if one of the
items doesn't match with others.

Llovet suggest that in the course of the design process the designer must integrate the different
elements contained in the object following the rules of the poetic function.
Llovet recognizes that the designed object carries a sign-value, with an approach similar to
Baudrillard's. Baudrillard claims that commodities are bought and displayed as much for their sign-value as
their use-value, and that the fact of sign-value has become a critical component of the commodity and its
consumption in the contemporary society. In this act of communication the designer a sends a message
through the object.

However, our original question still remains: what happens when people in fact use the things
created by designers?

Interactivity and communication: begging the question

During the use of the object the user performs one or several actions on the object and the object executes
one or more actions corresponding to the user's procedures. This is an interactive process apparently
performed with the object itself and is normally compared to a dialogue.

In fact, Sheizaf Rafaeli defines the concept of interactivity with regard to the activity of
communication exchanges: "An expression of the extent that, in a given series of communication
exchanges, any third (or later) transmission (or message) is related to the degree to which previous
exchanges referred to even earlier transmissions" (5).

Actually we are in the presence of a circular argument: when inquiring about communication in
using objects, we defined the use itself as a communication process.

In contrast, Terry Winograd points out how the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Human Computer
Interaction (HCI) communities have often been characterized as having opposing views of how humans
and computers should interact, bringing two related questions: "Should we expect to communicate with the
computer in the same way we would to another human...? Or are there practical and even philosophical
objections to encouraging people to attribute human attributes and abilities to their computers?" (6).

Winograd seems reluctant to characterize human-computer interaction as a communication

process in regard of Austin and Searl’s 'speech act theory'. Austin argues that when we speak, we do not
simply make descriptions of a non-linguistic world. Everyday conversations consists of 'speech acts' of
different kinds such as metaphors, questions, promises, rumors, etc. (7) and some of these acts involve
purpose, intention or will.

We will try to explore the concept of interactivity with a scheme not related to communication
from the beginning, and then try to find the link between them.

The geometry of knowledge

Interaction is about the coordinated actions of two or more entities. More specifically, interaction involves
change, when the action of one of the entities promotes a change or state alteration in the other or the
others, and vice versa. Is a two-way effect, contrasting a one-way causal effect. In systems theory the
combination of simple interactions can lead to emergent phenomena.

Following the 'geometry of knowledge' model (8), we propose different stages for interaction:
phase shift, successive selection of phase and random selection of phase, with some complementary
functions. We will succinctly describe this model.

The more basic form of interaction is when an entity can achieve only two states or phases. If the
entity has only one state then it cannot change and there is no possible interaction. In this stage the
interaction consist in the change from one phase to the other. For example: the light switch, one of the
simplest interactive artifacts.
When the entity has more than two states the interaction can take the stage of successive selection
of phase: the consecutive shift from one state to the next, until the end of the selection possibilities. This
kind of interaction is frequently used in text reading, image visualization or slide shows.

If the entity can acquire multiple states and the user wants to get one in particular that is far away
in the succession string, then interaction can be achieved by the random selection of phase, where the user
can select the desired state without going through the intermediate stages.

The geometry of knowledge scheme recognizes the combination of the suggested stages within
different structural configurations. For example, it is possible to generate a three dimensional interactive
walk applying the random selection of phase with four states: forward, backward, turn right and turn left,
which are repeated successively for each new position.

From this perspective, we can confirm that the coordinated sequence of acts that people performs
with objects, no matter its complexity, is an interactive phenomenon. The user interacts with the object
itself and not with the designer. In this interactive process the object state changes, but also the user's state
shifts, contrary to the idea of one-way causal effect in objects by people actions.

In addition this model distinguish different kinds of interactivity: user-machine interaction, user-
user interaction, or user-message interaction and the possible mediations between them, for example: user-
machine-message-machine-user interaction.

Information by itself does not create knowledge; it must be organized, transformed, and presented
in a way that gives its significance. In other words: knowledge requires, in addition to the information, of a
structure to provide meaning. This structure is what we call geometry of knowledge.

The geometry of knowledge model recognizes the function of user states and perceptions. As
Reeves and Nass suggest, in general, perceptions are more influential than reality in terms of individuals’
interactions with computers (9).

Acknowledge of people shifts is the foundation for affective interaction studies and emotional
design. This changes involves psycho-physiological effects, reflecting physical, emotional and cognitive
shift in the user as a result of the interaction with objects (10). Sometimes the change in people state
becomes more evident with interrupted interactions or flow breakdowns (11).

Through the use of the object the individual and the object change congruently, adapting to each
other in a way that can be defined by the term 'structural coupling' as proposed by Maturana and Varela. To
them, structural coupling takes place when the history of interactions between two or more systems
becomes a history of recursive coherent structural changes in which the participant systems change together
congruently (12).


Despite being sympathetic with the notion of participating consciousness in the relation with objects, as
designers we don't need to attribute purpose, intention or will to everyday objects during the process of
design, neither in their conceptual analysis.

Designers send messages through the objects; this is a communication act. But, unless
participating in a test procedure, users cannot send corresponding messages to designers. Generally the
designer-user relation is not interactive in regard that there is no two-way effect.

We identify the use of designed objects as an interactive procedure between the user and the object
itself. Through performing this procedure the object changes and the user changes accordingly.
Additionally, we recognize that interactive procedures can be components of several
communication processes, for example between different users or between the user and the object. The
object itself plays diverse roles in different communication acts. Every communication process has
particular characteristics: some of them are one-way acts that cannot be properly defined as interactive


(1) Fernando Martín Juez, Contribuciones para una antropología del diseño, Gedisa, Barcelona, 2002, pp.

(2) Morris Berman, The reenchantment of the world. Bantam Books, New York, 1981, p. 16

(3) Jordi Llovet, Ideología y metodología del diseño, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 1981, pp. 89-133

(4) Idem, p. 99

(5) Sheizaf Rafaeli, Interactivity: From New Media to Communication, in H. Hawkins,

J. Wiemann and S. Pingree (eds) Advancing Communication Science: Merging Mass and
Interpersonal Processes, Sage, London, 1988, pp. 110–34

(6) Terry Winograd, Shifting viewpoints: Artificial intelligence and human–computer interaction, in
Artificial Intelligence 170, Elsevier, 2006, pp. 1256–1258

(7) Terry Winograd, A Language/Action Perspective on the Design of Cooperative Work, Human-
Computer Interaction 3-1, 1987-88, pp. 3-30.

(8) Gustavo Casillas, De la interfaz a la interfase. La relación hombre-máquina más allá del paradigma de
representación. UNAM, México, 2004, pp. 53-64

(9) Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and
New Media Like Real People and Places, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1996

(10) Timo Partalaa and Veikko Surakka, The effects of affective interventions in human–computer
interaction, Interacting with Computers 16, Elsevier, 2004, pp. 295–309

(11) Jocelyn Scheirer, Raul Fernandez, Jonathan Klein and Rosalind W. Picard, Frustrating the user on
purpose: a step toward building an affective computer, Interacting with Computers 14, Elsevier, 2002, pp.

(12) Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, El árbol del conocimiento, Lumen-Editorial Universitaria,
Buenos Aires, 2003, p. 50