Journal Article

Translating Properties into Functions (and Vice Versa): Design, User Culture and the Creation of an American and a European Car (1930–70)

Gijs Mom

in Journal of Design History

Published on behalf of Design History Society

Volume 21, issue 2, pages 171-181
Published in print January 2008 | ISSN: 0952-4649
Published online October 2007 | e-ISSN: 1741-7279 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jdh/epm023
Translating Properties into Functions (and Vice Versa): Design, User Culture and the Creation of an American and a European Car (1930–70)

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Drawing from recent work in the philosophy of technology (the dual nature of artefacts), sociology and anthropology (social practice theory) and ecological psychology (activity theory), this article develops a functionalist, user-centred and quasi-evolutionary theory of agency and technical change in the history of design. Central in this theory is the concept of ‘function', a dynamic battleground between designers, users and other actors. Function is created and changed by users, and by users alone, but it is enabled (and constrained) by technical properties developed by designers and engineers with the user in mind. This theory is applied to the automobile's gearbox and is used to explain the emergence of two different automobile cultures, an American and a European, differing, in this case, by a preference for automation on the American side and a reluctance to follow the American example on the European side. Automotive functions, it is argued, have been developed during the ‘Fordist' phase to be as universal as possible, in order to enable a constant, but mostly incremental, change in user culture and to afford as wide a variety of applications as possible.

Keywords: automatic gearbox; automobile design; design theory; history of technology; social construction of technology; user culture

Journal Article.  7727 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Art ; Art Forms ; Industrial and Commercial Art ; Art Styles

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