Reading Response #2: Design to Lower Inhibition

to Artful Design • Chapter 2: “Designing Expressive Toys”


Jack Xiao


MUSIC 256A / CS 476A, Stanford University


My reading response for this week will focus on the following idea from Chapter 2 of Artful Design:

- Principle 2.7: Design to Lower Inhibition

For most (if not all) of the design problems I’ve worked on, the goal was to solve a solve problems in a way that supplements existing behavior. Generally, solutions that encourage (or even require) the outright changing of a user’s behavior aren’t considered optimal. Perhaps this is again because most of the problems I have seen are primarily based in engineering, emphasizing efficiency and practicality above all else. However, this idea of design to invoke certain behaviors makes a ton of sense. And, I guess, in a way, designing to lower inhibition falls in the category of solving “unseen and unspoken” problems that people may be too afraid to communicate (or just unaware of entirely). I think this lowering of inhibition can take place both physically and mentally/emotionally, each with its own characteristics and values.


On the physical side of things, I think the effects are more straightforward and observable. Like how an autotune application makes it easier for people to step past their fears of judgement, vulnerability, and embarrassment to sing for the world to see (as described in Artful Design pg. 99), these impacts are tangible. We directly see the effects of good, artful design as it encourages more people to create art, music, perform, etc. I find the analogy of autotune to alcohol as an “inhibition inhibitor” is quite accurate; I personally would feel much more comfortable singing through autotune than without it. Any design that allows for plausible deniability of the result, some barrier between myself and the outcome would naturally remove limitations. Like how anonymity is what makes the internet so interesting. And, just as that same anonymity can sometimes make the internet untrustworthy and superficial (and sometimes scary and hostile as well), the same removal of physical inhibition in design may also potentially reduce the emotional value of the results. Design that lowers physical inhibition might be good to help people take some steps out of their shell, but may also serve as a crutch for some to hide behind and never fully let themselves go. Like most other design problems, balancing these opposing forces is what makes effective designing to lower inhibition challenging. 


Mental and Emotional

Perhaps even more challenging is design that lowers mental and emotional inhibition. What does this mean exactly? Well, vulnerability and fears may not always come from the outside world, and can sometimes come from within ourselves. Design that encourages us to reflect upon our own experiences and feelings in ways that we never would have dared to otherwise reaches a completely different world compared to design that remains in the physical. As is the case with Aaru, the endless eternity of the field of reeds presented in “The Idyllic Video Game Sublime,” design that makes you think and feel, design that immerses your soul, transcends the physical benefits of good design and invites healing and happiness (or any other profound emotion) on a spiritual level. Design that can lower mental/emotional inhibition, in a way, is simpler to achieve than design that lowers physical inhibition, simply because there are so many people on the planet with different experiences and backgrounds, so conceivably any design concept will find at least some subset of people who will find it powerful. At the same time, this also makes it more unpredictable; there is little that the design itself can to to “control” the thoughts of users, but I guess that’s exactly the point. The effect of good artful design ought to be different for everybody, as it should encourage everyone to come up with their own interpretation and meaning.