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There are many objects we interact with on a daily basis which help us meet our basic needs, which we take for granted.  We no longer recognize or acknowledge the object for anything other than the role it plays in helping us satisfy our needs.  My thesis work, Emotional Objects, explores animating products as a valid technique to engender a deeper emotional connection between objects and their users.

In his book, Emotionally Durable Design, Jonathan Chapman discusses the current state of consumer culture, and the impact this has had upon product design.  Chapman believes that through our modern fixations with: technology, the surface characteristics of products, and being able to quickly generate sales; we have inadvertently designed away the more poetic and enduring characteristics of our material culture.  As a result, Chapman argues that durable attachments with objects are seldom witnessed in our current consumer climate.  He hypothesized that the only way for products to healthily sustain their interactions with consumers is for them to “possess a diversity and pluralism of character”.  Looking at objects from this viewpoint, I find that many products within the current model of design are static and non-evolving.  In sharp contrast, their users are constantly changing.  It can be suggested then, that in order to form a stronger, more satisfying bond between a product and its user, designers must learn to embrace unpredictability and design objects that create situational variety.

In order to better understand human emotional attachment, I investigated the work of Harry Harlow, a prominent American psychologist in the 1950’s, who demonstrated the importance of tangible affection in social and cognitive development.  Harlow studied infant rhesus monkeys to analyze the development of emotional attachment in infants. At the time, the commonly held theoretical position was that affection is an innate drive developed through the repeated association of the mother with reduction of the primary biological drives, particularly hunger and thirst.  Harlow questioned this hypothesis, and focused instead upon the influence that bodily contact plays in attachment formation.  Through his experiments, Harlow discovered that contact comfort was the overwhelmingly important variable in forming a bond between the infant and its mother, rather than nourishment.

Harlow’s experiments highlight the important role that our sense of touch plays in forming emotional attachments.  According to Japanese designer and author of the book Haptics, Kenya Hara, “everything occurs on the skin”.  By heightening the senses and blending them through design, we can begin to restore users to a more direct experience of the world, which, according to Hara, modern technology has diminished.  I see the field of haptic design as a way to bridge technology and feelings, allowing us to create deeper connections and more complex sensory interactions between objects and their users.

This understanding of the relationship between emotional attachment and the senses, has led me to investigate the roles that touch plays in our everyday interactions with objects.  For example, human comfort is very closely tied to temperature, with its extremes, both high and low, capable of causing discomfort and even harm through touch.  We instinctively know that a metal chair should feel cooler to the touch than a wooden one.  We wrap both hands around our coffee mug and hold it close to our chest to warm us on a chilly day.  From these observations I developed my thesis work, Emotional Objects, in which I modified three everyday objects in order to actively call attention to their dynamic relationship with heat, and to provide the user with a deeper understanding of their interactions with these changing environmental conditions.

A teacup that shivers in response its tea going cold. A metal chair that heats up when you sit in it, revealing its aspirations to be warm and comfortable. A pan whose handle becomes impossible to grasp when it is too hot to touch with bare hands.  The animate characteristics of these everyday objects allow them to facilitate meaningful interactions with their users by actively responding to their environment and evolving through their conditions of use.  They inform the user about what they are, where they live, and how they should be used.  By incorporating dynamic behaviors into an object’s design, I believe it is possible to create emotionally satisfying bonds between products and their users. Perhaps in this manner, we will begin to create new forms of sustainable and emotionally satisfying human-object relationships, and positively impact our current culture of consumption.

Read more about Tara’s project Emotional Objects in a previous post on this website.

About the author:

Tara Mullaney is a Master of Design in Designed Objects graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.   She comes from a background in anthropology and biology, and considers herself both a scientist and a designer.  Her previous work has involved studying the social, cultural, and biological aspects of human behavior, and she is now applying her insights from these other fields into her designs.  She will finish her degree in December of 2009, and looks forward to continuing to investigate ways to facilitate deep emotional connections between objects and their users. Find out more at: www.taramullaney.org

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