McLuhan said “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. This has never been truer than in the case of stone age man. New Scientist suggests that stone tools helped shape human hands. The article actually suggests a more expected story of natural selection (namely the humans able to use the available stones survived), but it’s still an interesting reminder of how man is really a “tool-making animal”.
One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”… “You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler , Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style” (Carr 2008).
More generally, it points out how physicality can affect writing.
Rhizome interviewed video artist Mark Leckley. He comments on how photography has changed from being a gaze to something from the hands. He also notes both that vision is physical, but our digital objects are changing our sense of physicality:
Say I’ve filmed or made an object and then I’ve put it smack in the middle of the screen. Its really compelling, this object, its got real allure – real presence.Because the object compels me; it’s not me (as a maker), it’s the agency of the object drawing me to it. It causes a physical sensation in my body; this image, this picture, this mere representation, seems to be directly stimulating the material elements in me: all my nerves and fibre. Like I’m responding to a physical encounter. At this point I’m not just contemplating an image, I’ve embraced it and absorbed it into my body. There’s a great British phrase to describe this: ‘clapped eyes on it’ – your eyes are like hands that smack an object.
At the same time, I keep telling this story of when I last tried to sculpt a figure out of clay. I made one half of the head and then it was as if my body, the instinctual part of it, couldn’t grasp why I couldn’t just copy, paste and flip the other half. It’s as if I’ve un-learned how to behave in the physical world, or that this engagement with the immaterial realm has superseded the need to. That’s a scary thought but also an exciting one.
I’m always looking for interesting parallel projects to use as reference for my work. One that I’d been aware of for a while but never really investigated was Re/Touch, one of the projects done as part of a general project on Near Field Communication (NFC) and design.
In the words of the site:
A collection of quotes from ethnographic accounts written between the late 1800s and the present, re/touch encourages designers and researchers to explore how touch is used by people to relate to one another and the worlds in which we live.
Sounds interesting. However, when I tried clicking on any of the links, I got errors. So, I went back to the Wayback Machine. According to their scrapes, it hasn’t worked since it was first put up in 2009! Whoops. I’ve let the team know so here’s hoping they fix it, though I’m surprised that no one picked it up over three years.
In the meantime, I went and scraped the information into my own subdomain so that I could see what was there. The (very basic) site is at retouch.aestheticsoftouch.com
I’ve been fascinated with the work of Hella Jongerius for a while (which only increased when I saw the Pulled Washbasin in real life for the first time during a rare travelling design show in New Zealand in 2010). After hearing that Droog employ writers for their copy, I though it work looking at the writing in regard to her highly tactile and evocative work.
The material and form combine to give this washbowl a soft appearance and touch; for a warm and comfortable bathroom feeling. The flexibility of this washbowl means you can bend it without damaging the bowl or yourself, making it particularly suitable for small spaces.
Hella Jongerius wanted to discover the true identity of plastic. To do this she took a basic shape, a half sphere and gave it its form by pushing it inwards. To keep the final shape she used different densities of the material.
From the designer’s own website (where it also notes that it is made from PU rubber and metal), the Pushed Washtub:
The transformation of a nonform into a form through the clever use of the inherent qualities of the material. The varied thicknesses of the skin determine the final shape of Pushed Washtub. Jongerius was one of the first designers to research the application of this relatively young material.
and Folded Washtub:
The same non-form as Pushed Washtub is squeezed inwards and ‘frozen’.
The skin and its material qualities have defined the design of Soft Urn. The archetypal form reveals the results of research into the ageing of an unconventional material for vases, PU rubber. Whereas most artificial materials look forever young, neutral and hygienic, Soft Urn has the feel of handicraft due to the addition of traces of the casting process. Soft Urn was soon recognized as a significant example of the ‘Dutch’ or ‘conceptual’ approach to design. Jongerius contributed to a few projects and exhibitions organized by Droog Design, the Dutch platform for conceptual design, until 1998.
She has rendered traditionally “hard” objects — a sink, say — in disorientingly squishy polyurethane. And she has added old-fashioned embroidery to porcelain bowls, the last place you’d expect to find it.
While I’d need to do more detailed semantic analysis on this to draw any concrete results, some points that are immediately noticeable on reading are terms such as ‘skin’, ‘inherent qualities’, and soft/comfortable. However, Folded Washtub uses notions of both force (‘squeezed’) and, perhaps the most strikingly different from the other terms, ‘frozen’.
The concept of ‘skin’ is one that has been explored in depth not only out of design, but also within it, namely in Ellen Lupton’s book on that very subject. (I will discuss this in a later post).
As part of this research, I have to understand how just how we touch objects.
When I was looking at this topic for my related Master’s research, I came across Lederman and Klatsky’s methods for haptic analysis. For those that haven’t come across it, they are:
Lateral motion (providing information about surface texture)
- Pressure (Compliance or hardness)
- Static contact (apparent temperature)
- Unsupported holding (weight)
- Enclosure (Volume; Global shape)
- Contour following (Exact shape)
- Contact (temperature)
For my own reference, I diagramatised it as such:
Since then, I’ve come across Jessica Dagman’s Haptic Product Properties. They are, with their relative associations:
- Size (Volume, dimensions, proportions)
- Shape (Configuration)
- Border (Contour)
- Point (Tip, break)
- Corner (Crook)
- Nook (Cranny)
- Protuberance (Bulge)
- Orientation (Support for usage)
- Balance (Between parts, equilibrium)
- Weight (Mass, load)
- Resistance (In a button or hinge for example)
- Stiffness (Rigidity)
- Structure (Pattern, texture)
- Resilience (Flexibility)
- Hardness (Softness)
- Hardness (Softness)
While she notes that the words are ‘nouns, not verbs’, I couldn’t help but cross-reference them against the above to see what came out.
Lederman and Klatsky
(Note, images not mine!)
While London waited for a lit up shard of the sky, at Northumbria University London industry and academics talked about thinking about touch, ranging from sensory therapy to concert costumes for the Black Eyed Peas.
‘The Touch Signpost as Educator’
Bruce Montgomery, Fashion Designer / Research Professor, Northumbria University
Bruce, longtime champion of touch in design, kicked off the day with examples that may answer through touch the question ”can we break the chain of dissatisfaction and consumption?”, including:
‘Touch Inspired Routes to Health and Wellbeing’: The Feather and the Toothbrush project
Katie Gaudion, Textile Designer / Technology Researcher, Royal College of Art and Anne Toomey, Reader for Materials in Design, Northumbria University.
While designers have been told in recent years to pay attention to extreme users, Gaudion paid attention to people with extreme sensory sensitivity: autism suffers. She noted that the sensory rooms and kits used by occupational therapists is very plastics based and general (for example, sensitivity to grip is only split between a feather and toothbrush) and has been working on more fine grained kits to enable families to understand which materials are suitable and not suitable).
‘Design Driven by Multisensory Experience’
Nancy Tilbury, Product Designer / Technology Researcher, P3i, Northumbria University
Reporting on work going on upstairs in the Northumbria London campus, Tilbury emphasised the importance of not only doing research but going beyond critical work and actually getting it to market. The work her team has done includes performance gear for the Black Eyed Peas and JLS, and is often published and getting the attention of stylists.
‘Engaging with Touch for Better Products and Business’
Jill Hawkins, Marketing Manager, UVU Sportswear
How do you convey the material properties of a high end niche sports product when you sell online? That’s the intriguing question that UVU (the name means ‘you versus you’, a nod to most extreme sports being psychological as much as physical) have to deal with. Having identified a particular niche—ultramarathon runners (ultramarathons are the new marathons, with more people signing up for half or ultra marathons than the traditional full ones since the latter now seem passe)—UVU have created a niche product that is getting a lot of success through word of mouth. However, given a lot of their point of difference is through the materials they’ve created and the effect this has (for example, their coats don’t overheat, meaning that the runners don’t have to take them off and put them on again), their ongoing challenge it so sell these benefits via their online store.
The afternoon had workshops based on the following themes:
- Education—Touch as an Educator
- Wellbeing—The Role of Touch in Wellbeing
- Sensory—Can Touch Take Design into New Spaces?
- Industry—Engaging Touch for Better Products.
(Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough to note down the thoughts that came from the talks, but did do remember some interesting discussions about getting training set up in design schools).
‘Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain’—Carl Jung
Not much there as of yet, but will be interesting to see what emerges over time.
And a light piece about hands and 50 examples of their use in the English language.
Writing about music might be like dancing about architecture, but ambiguously attributed quotes aside, how do the senses play a role in our writing? Raul Rodriguez-Esteban and Andrey Rzhetsky at Colombia University found that biomedical texts are desperately lacking when it comes to describing the senses, and that, while authors may be doing so to appear logical, doing this ’impedes text comprehension and numbs the reader’s senses and mind’. They urge the authors to instead write ‘perceptually richer prose’ with an eye to help clarify meaning.
So far, so not particularly surprising. But where it gets interesting is the other texts. Rodriguez-Esteban and Rzhetsky compared biomedical texts with that from Reuters news reports, Wikipedia, and the complete works of Poe, Shakespeare, and Whitman respectively. Whitman is far and above the most sensorially rich of the works (though perhaps even this is not surprising given its content), and then Reuters and Poe (also arguably because they deal with stories that are meant to grab the reader). Shakespeare is last in general as well as his use of sight language, but richest of the lot in others including touch.
It’s not made clear why these specific examples were chosen, however, it’s worth pointing out that this research was carried out in a larger context of data-mining from biomedical text. (For more on this, see Rodriguez-Esteban’s PhD thesis). It does point out that we could get interesting information from data mining text). It also raises the question for me about how touch is discussed in literature across time ….