At this time of year we sometimes get feedback from customers who have settled into their summer homes and are living for the first time with things they purchased from us earlier in the year. Happily, the comments are often sprinkled with the word “love,” which turns our musings this month towards exploring what it means to love an inanimate object such as a piece of furniture, and what elements go into stirring such strong positive emotion.
In his book Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things (New York: Basic Books, 2004), Donald Norman, a computer and psychology professor who is also a consultant on designing human-centered products, analyzes what’s behind people’s emotional reactions to viewing and using common objects such as tea kettles, wristwatches, and laptop computers. He is mostly concerned with our reactions to utilitarian objects rather than to artistic creations such as paintings or photographs which more directly represent and invoke the human experience and related emotions.
Norman proposes three different levels of the brain at which an everyday object can evoke emotion. The first level is Visceral – the immediacy of how something looks or feels, the symmetry of its lines and its aesthetic congruity. Whether the physical appearance of an object strikes a person as pleasing or ugly will generate a corresponding emotional response.
The second level of the interaction between objects and emotions is Behavioral. How well a gadget functions and whether it is pleasurable to interact with as we carry out a task can generate positive or negative emotions. An interesting finding is that when we have a positive aesthetic response to something such as a technological device, it also becomes easier to use at the behavioral level. This is because positive emotions can actually sharpen our cognitive problem solving processes.
Appearance and function of an object are the two basic levels that designers need to get right – a product usually has to look good and work well to become popular. Take an Old Hickory Morris chair, for example.
With its high back, multiple spindles, organic weave, and bark-on hickory frame it creates a composition that is a pleasure to look at, so is a success at the visceral level. It also scores high points at the functional/behavioral level, with a wide seat, a back that adjusts to different angles, and a footstool for ergonomic comfort.