Touch It, Design It, Build It

No one operates with just one sense.   This is fairly obvious at the sensory level where the visual, kinesthetic, auditory, tactile, etc. elements of our world come together to produce bio-cognitive responses.  Something soft, round and red will produce a different reaction than one that is hard, square and blue.  Increasingly there is a recognition in all types of consumer research, from product design to packaging, that there’s are emotional and/or experiential connection that people have with products.  These go well beyond bio-cognitive responses and speak to the symbolic underpinnings of what it is people believe about a product or brand.

Tactile design is, unfortunately, an often overlooked element of design from the semiotic perspective. The value people attach to products or brands has as much to do with how something feels as it does with how it looks or the function it serves. That means that how a package feels in the hands of a consumer can imprint a long-term psychological association not only with the object, but also with the company that makes it.  This means taking a two-pronged approach. One the one hand, you have to explore how context shapes how people understand different materials.  What feels “right” in one setting may not feel as good in another.  Second, you have to understand reactions and associations when materials are experienced in isolation – blind testing where the only sensory input is touch. When relying exclusively on the tactile, the consumer is forced to set aside their sight-based sensory dominance and focus completely on the sensation of touch.

Ergo Chef knives are a great example of this.  Not only they ergonomically ideal tools, the materials used in the handles mimic skin insofar as being soft, but not so like skin that they produce a negative association. Researchers found that if the material was too human-like, if felt “creepy” because it reminded people of host of negative symbolic relationships – associations were made with cannibalism and slasher movies, both of which in turn speak to host of other negative symbolic associations.  Based on fieldwork and testing for symbolic associations with a range tactile experiences, Ergo Chef developed a material that felt comforting, secure and innovative.  In other words, they didn’t just ask if a material felt good, they explored how different materials felt both in isolation and in context, and what symbolic associations could be assigned to the material.

You wouldn’t design a product or package based only on what you hear or see alone.  What seems right in a lab may mean nothing if it loses it’s meaning in a different context.  Looking at the symbolic underpinnings of materials and shapes allows you and a design team to isolate the senses in certain activities and uncover a range of meanings. We gain powerful insights into what people think and feel about the things we build.  That leads to a truly holistic approach to integrating design, marketing and brand.

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