Good article in Cre@te Online (why do I feel the overwhelming desire to add the word 'shock' there? I'll resist). It's an interview with Bill Moggridge of IDEO, the genuine design legend, and the man who coined the phrase 'interaction design'. Although he doesn't mention it, he seems excited by a lot of what he heard at DIS2002 (as I was), particularly the Dunne & Raby and Tom Moran talks I mentioned earlier (full Moran notes here). After Dunne & Raby's talk on their Placebo Project (prototype 'furniture' containing embedded devices interacting with various aspects of the electromagnetic spectrum), Moggridge made the observation that the aesthetics of the furniture (a chair, low and high tables) had receded to an über-minimalism —they looked almost like abstract representations of chairs, tables, etc.
Moggridge noted that the aesthetics recede as behaviour becomes more important—that behaviour is the aspect people actually engage with. According to my notes, Dunne replied that "we reduced the aesthetic dimension to the bare necessity, as we're more interested in what surrounds them" (in terms of environment or behaviour). That this "abstract, simple design" (which was also beautifully-realised) means that the adoptees focused on behaviour. In the Cre@te Online article, Moggridge elucidated a little further, talking of a New Rationalism (which almost sounds like a manifesto opportunity).
"It moves back in a way that Naoto Fukasawa, who runs our Tokyo office, describes as design dissolving in behaviour. So you find that the design is actually looking, as a physical object, very elegant, laid back, recessive. But inside, there's some exciting thing happening where the engagement, the entertainment value, the thing that makes you say, 'Aha!' is more driven by the behaviour of the thing."
I love Fukasawa's phrase "design dissolving in behaviour" (See also Without Thought profiled here), and as I mentioned, this seems like it would relate to what Dunne & Raby had discovered with their product design too. Moggridge gives examples of what he means in the latest iBook and Titanium Powerbooks from Apple (surely the iPod is another good example), the Audi TT, the Handspring Visor Edge, and many Muji products (some of which were developed in conjunction with IDEO Japan, such as Muji's brilliant wall-mounted pull-cord CD player).
In terms of ubiquitous computing (e.g. Moggridge makes the point that digital cameras are 'invisibly' developing into computers), this recessive approach is surely key. But as our web-based products become smarter and tend towards exhibiting behaviour, or allowing user-behaviour to drive the product, perhaps a recessive elegance should be foremost?
This doesn't just mean aping the faux-Swiss School, or Bauhaus-lite, movements of recent years—where bold san-serifs dominate sweeping vectored landscapes of grey and process colours, effectively just for the sake of it—but really thinking about interaction design (and its aesthetics) providing platforms or environments for user or system behaviour. Providing the simplicity of operation found in Muji, Audi, and Apple products; establishing that the action of the content and the user is the most important aspect of the system (i.e. the behaviour) rather than a surface sheen of attractiveness - and not least using these approaches to create a seductive aesthetic too, as, say, Jonathan Ive's team has (their key philosophy? "Do it better, simpler, and more elegantly").
So, as precursors, we've got Ive's team, spiced with essence-of-Moggridge-and-Fukasawa blended with Tom Moran's ideas around Adaptive Design, which implicitly puts behaviour at the forefront of the design system. Not least by Moran's reminders that design is a humble trade; that we've shortchanged usefulness in our design goals; the importance of studying social networks and social process; design itself as social process based around negotiating open standards; that usability is mainly a problem because we've made it one, by not allowing systems to be truly adapted by users.
Maybe a New Rationalism is one possible future methodology for design after the kind of intensely behaviour-oriented challenges posed by recent developments around the Semantic Web?