This paper will be part of the proceedings for Cumulus Kyoto 2008, March 28-31.

The confusion concerning timelessness. Does the everyday interpretation of the notion at all promote sustainable living?

Kristina Borjesson


This paper is mainly based on research conducted for my PhD project: The Affective Sustainability of Objects. (Borjesson 2006). Post-doctoral research including continued studies, workshops and seminars has since allowed for advanced conclusions.


Though widely used in design discourse among academics, practitioners as well as in commerce, timeless escapes definition, not least in application: how to design for timelessness? Osborne (1995) refers to some of the most influential philosophers of our time, mentioning among others Benjamin, Gadamer and Ricoeur when he makes a quest through the politics of time. As a result, he emphasises that time has got many interpretations: historical times, now time, new time, Modernity, Avant-garde … All these temporal concepts are made by man, while time and history flows in an ongoing process. The idea of flow is also central for Kwinter (2001), who introduces the notion of ‘affective capacity’: the characteristic of an object, which flows with time rather than is sorted in under a fixed temporal concept. Its ability to flow is a result of its continued relevance: like a tradition it lives on only as long as it contributes, provided it is not artificially kept alive, i.e. by politics. Traditions have after the trademark detraditionalisation by the modern movement regained a place on several academic agendas and are there assigned important roles as transmitters of experience rather than [irrelevant] rules (Lash 1993). The understanding of time and tradition is part of our cultural philosophy as is aesthetic judgment. What differentiates the latter from the two former is that it often seems to have has two components, the un-reflected and sensual but also the reflected and cultural (Dewey 1934, Rée 1998). I will return to this issue further on in my paper.

It is the arousal of the senses, which brings a person in an affective state. She might not show it, it is an inner feeling and sometimes she is not even aware herself, it is an unconscious, but lived experience. Another time the sensation might set her in a good mood, even is she does not know why, it just feels right. Current and ongoing developments within neuroscience explain why we act and react as we do and more often than was previously understood, out of our own control (Bastick 2003, Damasio 1994, 2000, Wilson 2002).

The knowledge of how our brain works is crucial for the understanding of affectivity and to which extend it influences our decisions. Enhanced knowledge further provides us with guidance concerning whether affectivity should be regarded as irrational and a disturbance or as completing the rational and thus an important factor in decision-making.

The initial proposal that something could be timeless or without time has thus brought the analysis all the way into the different lobes of our brain where functions, essential for our survival are performed. The struggle for survival is in a way the essence of timelessness: that what fills the purpose of facilitating not only survival but being as such, has an affective capacity. An object, and also a matter, which has this capacity could be called timeless because it serves this aim [of survival and being]. However, this is not the meaning popularly attached to the notion of timelessness, which appears to have a cultural character. Affectivity is according to Ticineto Clough (2007) basically pre-individual and pre-conscious but not pre-social, which means that culture has affective elements. This would explain why a few cultural values actually have sustained over time in the fast developing parts of the world. However, a more general approach to sustainability would necessitate a look beyond culture.

This paper will therefore thematically explore Human ways of Being and Living, Lived and Learned experience, Simplicity and Simplification, Affect and Emotion to substantiate directions for designers aiming further than the rhetoric of timelessness and the issue of physical sustainability

Human ways of Being and Living.

When Maslow 1970 revised his ‘need pyramid’ (first introduced 1954) he added esteem and self-actualisation to the basic needs of safety, love/belonging and physiological demands. He even suggested that the two later additions had a tendency to overshadow the three basic needs, which originally made up the pyramid (Maslow 1970). He thus turned the need pyramid upside down while proposing that well-being has more facets and is more complex than previously thought. Well-being arrives with the fulfilment of the basic need and is in constant dialogue with our cultural and social context, which constitutes our frame of reference. For a designer to consider human well-being when aiming at sustainability is hence a measure, which would need to be carefully analysed to differentiate between basic needs as respectively adaptable and changeable. I have chosen to express the former as Human ways of being and the latter as Human ways of living. How are these to be recognised and separated? To formulate it very simply: human ways of being have a history whilst our ways of living have not.

This instantly gives associations to counter development and prompts the question: do new ways of living not mean improvement and progress? Are they necessarily unsustainable? The answer is no, we adapt by quickly learning when objects or other improvements undoubtedly care for us but we unlearn slowly (Wilson 2002, Hill 2002). What in this process becomes part of our ways of being has at least a good chance to sustain as opposed i.e. techno-addicted or fashion-dictated lifestyles (Hill 2002). The revelation, brought to us by neuroscience, is that humans are not victims of ever changing lifestyles as long as the context does not continuously respond to them: our unconscious adapts by lived experience and gives us a chance to resist, to ponder our choices. We may not necessarily be aware of the process; sometimes we merely decide that we do not find anything, which suites our needs better than what we already have or alternatively we make choices, which comes as a slight surprise to ourselves (Borjesson 2006). 

Lived and Learned Experience.

Our brain can only store a fraction of the information it is confronted with. Moreover, only part of what is stored is conscious, actively learned and able to recall on command (Ramachandran 2003). What else is stored is only activated by certain stimuli, which would mean that our lived experience is brought to use in appropriate situations. Bastick (2003) explains human intuition as lived experience and the important role of the unconscious for human behaviour is further emphasised by Damasio (1994, 2000). Though widely researched over a period of more than 15 years, there is still no common understanding concerning the link between the rational; the learned and conscious, and the irrational; the lived and unconscious in human behaviour and decision-making. We understand ourselves as basically rational, whilst there are evidences, even if to a degree disputed, that by denying the irrational we refuse to make use of our total experience. 

Enhanced knowledge of how our brain works is thus essential for the trust of the irrational. To refer to intuition, often called gut feeling, is generally not regarded neither scientific nor scholarly. However, change ought to gradually come about when evidence continue to define intuition as knowledge, which is stored outside our immediate conscious (Bastick 2003) and scientific experiments show that our brain unconsciously notices i.e. the system of a game and decides accordingly before the player is aware (Damasio 1994). 

Simplicity and Simplification.

Sensual experiences bypasses reflection and give immediate responses. The moment we start to discuss a sensual sensation, it is influenced from our context: the social and the cultural. Though aesthetics have been linked to intellectual values, the revival of its original Greek meaning, aesthesis; sensation or perception by the senses, has been strengthened over the course of the twenties century (Osborne 2000). To talk about aesthetical values would consequently only be relevant if a number of people independent in time and context were to make in between them similar aesthetic judgments concerning the same or resembling artefacts.

Aesthetical values are therefore not to be imposed on anyone or set as a standard [which was done by the modernist and the followers of the device; less is more]. Postrel (2004) argues that beauty is the aesthetic reflected and yet the impression of beauty is claimed to be very personal. Already in 1735, a German philosopher, Alexander Baumgarten, claimed that sensual recognition was not inferior to or to be overruled by reason. Sensuality was a complement to reason and “provides a representation of reality the same way reason does for rationalist philosophy.” (Menke 1998, p. 40) Baumgarten proposed what the neuroscientist now are about to find proof for: “ The goal of aesthetics – the enlargement of the realm of legitimate cognition, including sensual forms – required an epistemological break with the very understanding of legitimate cognition as such.” (Menke 1998, p. 40) The difference is that we now know that cognition i) is not a prerequisite for developing our experience: the unconscious is adapting and learning simultaneously to the conscious, our senses seemingly develop, which was observed and claimed already by Dewey (1934).

The aesthetical value of simplicity and absence of decorative elements as a precondition for timelessness (Droste 1990) was imposed by the modernist and is more of a rational statement linked to industrial manufacturing than to sensual experiences. On the contrary, the absence of conspicuous elements makes it difficult for humans to differentiate between objects and thereby remember them (Bastick 2003). Mugge (2007) makes observations of the same kind: product attachment is made difficult by neutral object characteristics. She further argues against the claim that attachment always develops over time and suggests that longevity is a function of presence: even a long lasting attachment might break if product and person are separated. Referring back to how our brain works, I will here make a counterclaim: attachment is initially established through visceral understanding. If this is made difficult, the object is discarded (Norman 2004). Simplicity is demanding exactly due to the lack of conspicuous elements whereas simplification is achieved by the presence of the identifiable, a kind of a visual dictionary, which explains what it is all about.

To continue with the metaphor of dictionary, only further exploration completes understanding and enhances remembrance and attachment. This would mean that the object must allow for this exploration, which explains why form, colour and material form a unity, which when changed might reverse how the object is perceived. The fact that an object invites to further exploration suggests that imperfection rather than perfection accounts for durable attachment. 

Affect and Emotion. 

Damasio (2000) is precise in his definition of emotions, feelings and mood. Emotions are outward, what we show, whilst feelings are inwards, what we experience. The latter are not possible for others to see or judge. Mood is what it all results in, independent of the respective proportions of emotions and feelings behind. Affect is a general state combining feelings, emotions and mood and decides or relation to a situation or an object. The more exact proportions making up an affective state is of course impossible to define. As already pointed out above, affectivity is a pre-conscious and pre-individual state, part of human ways of being. The claim by Bastick (2003) that emotion is more to be seen as a set of components, than one single component explains to which extend affect is socially/culturally dependent: emotions are made up of one affective, one motor and one cognitive component. What we show outwards is not immediate; it is reflected and to varying degrees customised to the situation dependent on how strong the affective components is.

Though a popular academic subject area, design and emotion is consequently less relevant for sustainability than often implied (Chapman 2005) and to design emotionally sustainable objects is hardly possible (Love 2002). Emotions are by definition not durable but instead through cognition in constant interaction with our context, the social and the cultural. Efforts to arrive at durable product attachment through regard to self-expression and group affiliation have for this reason proven to be difficult, which is also observed by Mugge (2007). The importance of memories for product attachment is often judged to be too personal to be considered by designers, even if collective memories do become part of cultural expressions.

The influence of pleasure [of using] must according to Jordan (2000) take into consideration also those variables beyond the merely physiological: the social, the psychological and the ideological pleasures. The designing of pleasurable products might consequently enhance product attachment and add to its longevity - but just as well also do the opposite!

Very few states are purely affective and those who are do not last very long: our reactions in a situation which poses immediate fear is primarily totally affective, which probably saves our life, but this state is quite rapidly replaced by reflection about what was about to happen, could have happened. Damasio(1994, 2000) is also very cautious to point out that humans are not ruled by the irrational but rational thought is ignited by affect, which includes emotions, and further in constant dialogue with the irrational: our intuition or lived experience.

Conclusion and directions.

Timeless and timelessness are from a designer and design point of view no descriptive notions and in addition ambiguous. They are typical examples of a terminology, which is based on a confused phenomenology. The effort to conceptualise timeless and define the quality timelessness has brought about the multidisciplinary analysis referred in this paper and shown that indiscriminate application of the notions not only has emptied them of meaning but in addition poses a risk of increasingly promote trend and fashion rather than sustainability.

Timelessness is rationally impossible, which I pointed out in the introduction to this paper. Philosophical approaches (Osborne 1995) to the notion tend instead to express an inner experience, a feeling, which with reference to the reasoning above often is difficult to originate and therefore to conceptualise. However, when these feelings result in certain repetitive human behaviour including expression of preferences, they can be identified and studied in real life. Awareness about the social and cultural context in which they appear furthermore offers opportunities to avoid certain biases.

At this stage in my research it is as a result possible to give a number of directions for designers to consider when aiming at sustainability beyond the political and the physical.

  • Human basic and adapted needs can be traced through object analysis as they represent the history visible beyond contemporary styling. 
  • Authenticity is irrelevant to needs and does not when reproduced add to the object’s sustainability.
  • Thoughtless acts are expressions of lived experience and the way of least resistance. They are easy to study as they are everywhere and always present.
  • Simplification is also part of the way of least resistance, to find a way through complexity [which simplicity does not]
  • The ‘new’, sometimes regarded as part of human adapted needs, is easily replaceable if representing merely innovation and not development or improved care.
  • Intuition is our archive of lived experience and can be referred to as such, though conceptualised to avoid [as far as possible] individual biases

i) Cognition have until recently referred to a conscious brain activity, a reflection, whilst perception has referred to an unconscious, un-reflected and sensual brain activity. The advancement of neuroscience has suggested that cognition also may take place unconsciously (Ramachandran 2003). 


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