Andre Braz, The Experience Design Manifesto, and the State of Design

October 29th, 2008 in Web Design Culture

by: Matthew Griffin

Recently, I've run across several references to André Braz's Experience Design Manifesto. His short manifesto is apparently being welcomed and applauded by the design community in general. I, on the other hand, found the document to be poorly planned, poorly executed, and riddled with clichés and pop-philosophy. On the positive side, this is a perfect opportunity to turn deconstructivism against its master and discuss a rare modern attempt at defining purpose.

An Opening Line to Remember

The manifesto wastes no time with supporting philosophical arguments. Apparently relativistic postmodernism is beyond debate at this point. André opens with a summary of his worldview applied to experience design:

The ultimate aim of all creative activity is to bring happiness to people's lives. Happiness is an emotion that comes in result of positive experiences and affects human beings. Experiences can happen in the past, present or future.

I realize this all sounds very innocent, but as Christian designers we must recognize the complete incompatibility of these statements with real truth. Orthodox Christians throughout history have recognized that the ultimate aim of all creative activity is to bring glory to God. And that's not a "because God said so" answer. An activity with an unmovable object as its aim is the only truly tangible and definable activity. Without an objective truth—an "unmoved mover"—as a reference point, the very concept of purpose loses all meaning.

Without an objective truth—an "unmoved mover"—as a reference point, the very concept of purpose loses all meaning.

Let's use André's purpose of "human happiness" as an example. Our first question should be why? Upon what foundation do you base your claim that human happiness is the purpose of creative activity? In a worldview of total subjectivism, one has no more right to say that the ultimate aim of creativity is human happiness than to say that the ultimate aim of creativity is to build a colony on the moon. Starting assumptions are often the most glaring holes any philosophical proposition (as is the case here) and yet, we glaze over them. We must never waiver on the assertion that only an objective reality can legitimize the categories of good and bad (or any categories for that matter). Postmodernism denies objective reality and leaves humanity unsatisfied. 

Setting that point aside for a moment, I'd like to move on to more pragmatic concerns. If happiness is the only criteria for establishing ultimate purpose, we're left in a dismal situation indeed. Imagine all the atrocities whose accomplishment has brought joy to the perpetrator. Are these acts then fulfilling the ultimate purpose of creativity? If you further defend this position by saying that ultimate purpose is only achieved when the maximum possible number of people are brought to happiness by a creative act, the consequences only darken. You're left with marginalized minority groups and miserable outcasts. Of course, I'm assuming that unspeakable atrocities against humanity and the marginalization of minorities are in fact bad things.

To contrast this postmodern "find happiness" language, however, you will notice that André's overall tone is extremely absolutist and even religious at times. He uses key phrases like "the ultimate aim",  "Future experiences must bring desire to the present", "reality and fantasy must empower one another" and, "brings enlightenment". "Ultimate", "must", "enlightenment"... These are the words of priest and theologians. This contradictory cocktail of postmodern relativism and absolutism is pervasive throughout, culminating in this bold claim:

The Experience Designer is therefore a new denomination for all of those that follow this movement and conjure art, science, technology and psychology to desire, conceive and create experiences that bring happiness to the life of many.

Substitute "Christianity", "Christ", and "God's glory" in a few key places and you would have a great Christian creed. Deifying design and art is nothing new, but I still think it's important to point it out when it pops up.

A Downward Spiral

I actually believe his thinking is a beautiful representational slice of the spirit of the age.

The manifesto moves on from its now demolished premise to list the qualities for which experience design should strive in order to "foster happiness". The list includes such clichés as "Make people feel confident of themselves", and "Make people have an enjoyable and fun time during the experience, thus making life worth to be lived." Oh, and how could I leave out, "Surprises people in a magic way, bringing delight to the eyes and making the mind wonder." Understand, I'm not picking on André here. I don't think there's a postmodernist out there who could have done a better job. I actually believe his thinking is a beautiful representational slice of the spirit of the age. But I hope and pray this won't fly with designers for long—that there will be an awakening to truth. A life filled with experiences that "surprise people in a magic way" and "make life worth living" is a shallow version of our real purpose. When I hear these words and see that worldview lived out in the design community, I mourn a great loss in my vocation.

The rest of the manifesto follows in similar fashion, essentially restating the original summary over and over again in a kind of pseudo-philosophical language that almost sounds profound, but crumbles upon close scrutiny. An especially thought provoking moment is the proposition of

...the latent potential of a future experience...

André has apparently been praised for the creation of this phrase, but in reality it's absolutely meaningless. It springs from the postmodern concept of the holistic self transcending space and time to self-create and self-actualize and all the other self action we're supposedly aiming for. The implication of the phrase is that the past, present, and future co-exist in a kind of time soup and what we call the future is actually just dormant potential. Sure, it makes you stop and think a minute, but that's all it should do. "Latent potential of future" is manifest silliness without the sovereignty of a supreme personal being.

Welcome to Reality

I spent a lot of time critiquing in this article and not a whole lot of time presenting a formidable alternative. For that, I apologize. To continue this study, I recommend that you start by reading André's manifesto in its entirety. I think you'll find that I have not exaggerated. Next, if you haven't already, read my six part Christian worldview series that culminates with a Christian designer's manifesto. You can find links to every article at the bottom of the worldview page. It's important that Christian designers educate themselves and, as Paul puts it, "...destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God..." 2 Cor. 10:5. We can't let this kind of vision for our vocation go unchallenged.



Posted By: Melissa Jennings on 01/29/10

I don't agree that the words, ultimate, must and enlightment "are the words of priest and theologians", that's a very loose association. Besides they are only men themselves how do we know those words are descriptive of only theology. It's in our nature to take things, ideas beyond ourselves, larger than life or Godly and using words is one way. If your going to take the time to create an argument, please follow up. I'm no better after reading your manifesto than Andre Braz's. Apology not accepted, you've had time to give us designers more.

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