How Language Shapes Our View of the World

A recent NPR article emphasises how language affects our understanding of the world. It reports on research that specifically shows how words can affect how cultures understand locations or even taxonomies: Aborigine children can easily point in an asked global direction such as south or north-east thanks to their language using that rather than left or right, while Russians distinguish between their language equivalent of cups and glasses based on material rather than shape.

None of this research is particularly new: I remember reading ethnographic accounts several years ago about such considerations (one that stuck in my mind was how some Aboriginal children could happily read a newspaper or writing from any angle, even peering at the text upside down as another read it).

On a similar theme, another article highlighted research into where exactly emotions were felt in the body.

Hella Jongerious: Soft Sink and Pushed Washbasin

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.

Pulled Washbowl:

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.

Droog Lab

Pushed washbasin:

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’.

Soft Urn:

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.


From the New York Times (2006):

 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).

Getting a Handle on How We Handle Things

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:

My Lederman and Klatsky model from 2008 (sorry about the blue!)

My Lederman and Klatsky model from 2008 (sorry about the blue!)

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)
  • Material
  • Resistance (In a button or hinge for example)
  • Stiffness (Rigidity)
  • Structure (Pattern, texture)
  • Resilience (Flexibility)
  • Hardness (Softness)
  • Hardness (Softness)
  • Temperature

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

Lederman and Klatsky Dagman
Lateral motion
(surface texture)
Structure (Pattern, texture)
(Compliance or hardness)
Resistance (In a button or hinge for example)
Stiffness (Rigidity)
Hardness (Softness)
Static contact
(apparent temperature)
Unsupported holding (weight) Orientation (Support for usage)
Weight (Mass, load)
(Volume; Global shape)
Size (Volume, dimensions, proportions)
Shape (Configuration)
Contour FollowingContour following
(Exact shape)
Border (Contour)
Point (Tip, break)
Corner (Crook)
Nook (Cranny)
Protuberance (Bulge)
Moving PartsMoving parts Balance (Between parts, equilibrium)?
Lederman and Dagman, compared

Lederman and Dagman, compared

(Note, images not mine!)

Thinking About Touch Symposium, 5 July 2012

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:

5 Ways
Kate Fletcher

‘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:

  1. Education—Touch as an Educator
  2. Wellbeing—The Role of Touch in Wellbeing
  3. Sensory—Can Touch Take Design into New Spaces?
  4. 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).

My Broken iPhone

Aitken’s Broken iPhone

Joanne McNeisel ruminates in Rhizome on her first broken iPhone and the horror it provoked in young men:

The cleanliness of Apple design inspires more than a sense of guilt while snacking on something crumbly while using its products. Like an escape hatch from a world of reality television and rehabilitation center celebrities, most notable about Apple’s brand identity is what is absent—vulgarity. Even the advertisements seem refined—simple product demos on white backgrounds.

To return the favor, some Apple consumers practice a kind of Western interpretation of Shintoism, valuing and caring for the products as if they were living creatures. They respect the objects — their painstaking craftsmanship, and the promise of a better, less dirty, less vapid world —by keeping them in just-unboxed condition.

She also more generally notes that the aesthetic of the future is always one of two things: the first is a worn, rusted Star Wars look, the other a shiny, sneeze-and-you’ll-end-up-in-another-dimension sterile aesthetics, the latter of which Apple prescribes to.

Image and article on The Rhizone

The Sound Word Observer

While I’ve never really thought of my emoticon typings having an actual sound, RCA grads are developing a crowd-sourced directory for just that: the Sound Word Observer shows what !!!! and Yyyeeaaaaah amongst others sound like.

It’s pretty basic at this stage, but it’ll be interesting to see if this progresses to the levels of data of say, the We Feel Fine or the British Library Evolving English sites.

via Design Observer

The Economics of Aesthetics

While it’s hard not to smirk at the so-called ‘slow economy’ in 2003 (you thought that was bad? You ain’t seen nothing yet!) but Virginia Postrel’s article on aesthetics becoming a business commodity is still as useful now as it was then. And it doesn’t mention Apple.

Aesthetics is not just for places. Computers, for example, all used to look pretty much the same. Now they, too, can be special.

The drive for aesthetic value is creating opportunity throughout the supply chain. “Aesthetics, or styling, has become an accepted unique selling point,” says the head of GE Plastics’ global aesthetic program.

At the GE Plastics design center in Selkirk, N.Y., customers’ industrial designers and marketers brainstorm and develop new products, ranging from razors to car bumpers, inspired by new materials. Since 1995, GE Plastics has introduced 20 new visual effects. Its heavy-duty engineered thermoplastics can now emulate metal, stone, marble, or mother-of-pearl; they can diffuse light or change colors depending on the viewer’s perspective; they can be embedded with tiny, sparkling glass fragments.

This is a short dip into what she discusses more in-depth in her book ‘The Substance of Style‘.

Hermès and Leather

“People talk a lot about luxury, but it is important to show what Hermès is about — that our culture is of quality and excellence with noble materials.

The retrospective on Hermès and their work currently showing at the Royal Academy of Arts in New York makes particular note of their use of leather:

“Leather is the first material tamed by Hermès and remains its noblest conquest.”

Is Your Language Making You Fat?

This unpublished paper suggests that our concept of the world can be affected by our language. For example, people with languages which have defined concepts of the future have smaller nest eggs, eat more, and exercise less as the division between present and future allows them to put it off.

It is also worth noting that concepts of languages and the actual languages can differ: for example precise Germans may not be picking it up from their seemingly well formulated language as you might suspect, but because they can’t handle any more ambiguity after what is in fact a highly idiosyncratic one.