Getting Tactile with Design 1

Thursday, April 16th, 2015
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Though it is perhaps the least studied of the senses in terms of office design, our sense of touch is closely associated with the emotion of comfort and warmth.

While we may be able to pinpoint what makes an office look good, identifying why it feels good is another story.

Natural materials like wood and textiles like the soft wool in a shag rug are often associated with a warm, cozy feeling. Materials like metal and plastic convey sterility and coldness and are generally not inviting. There is more to tactile touch design than meets the eye.

Today, tactile design is morphing into a relatively new field, haptic design, which looks at touch in technology, especially mobile technology. Yet, as Harry Harlow famously demonstrated in 1958, tactile design should not be forgotten.

Harlow raised infant rhesus monkeys without mothers and gave them a choice between two artificial surrogate mothers. Both were constructed of wood and wire mesh. The difference was that one had a bottle of milk while the other one was covered with cloth. To most psychologists’ surprise, the monkeys bonded with the cloth mother that lacked a source of nutrition. Since then numerous studies from baby rodents to neonates have shown the importance of tactile stimulation. Yet, close to 60 years years on, few architects have studied how a design’s tactile experience might affect its users.

Compared to motherless rhesus monkeys, the effects of tactile design may be small in the workplace. Yet the effects could be meaningful and measurable when it comes to a person’s social behaviour, self-perception, enjoyment of, and comfort in a building.

There isn’t a lot of guidance when it comes to tactile design. Yet psychological studies can gives architects some pointers. For example, one study found that the individuals who were asked to hold warm items, such as a drink, were more likely to perceive others and themselves as friendlier, more trusting, and more generous than those who held cold items. A study that presented individuals with resumes on heavy or light clipboards found heavy objects made job candidates appear more important.

For an architect, then, does a heavy cold smooth door with a warm wooden handle have a different effect than a rough light warm door with a cold steel handle? We associate ‘heaviness’ with weightiness and subsequently seriousness. Does a door’s weight influence our perceptions of a space as we enter it? Could the tactile experience of the floors and walls influence people’s perceptions of and attitudes towards others? Perhaps the right tactile mixture would make a building/room more conducive to its purpose?

There is no reason not to advocate for a greater diversity of textures when designing office spaces. The key is to create balance, carefully selecting complementary textures. Elements that can add texture to a meeting or office space include textiles (rugs, carpets), furniture (tables, chairs, lamps), artwork (paintings, sculptures, wallpaper), flowers and plants.

Quite often what we think is grounded in what we touch and feel; for instance, sitting in a comfortable chair makes you a weaker negotiator. Plus, in our increasingly isolated world, including remote workers behind screens flying solo in their office, the opportunity for tactile engagement is slipping.

Touch helps us stay connected. It can reduce anxiety. It lowers blood pressure and improves your outlook. It’s harder to get into a pessimistic funk when you feel the confidence of being connected to others. Touch can make people feel more optimistic and positive and less cynical and suspicious. A positive, trusting attitude toward others can reduce tension in our daily lives and improve relationships – all great points to aspire to when designing for a healthy, productive, office environment.

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  1. Kirsty Mate

    Thanks for this article Ruth – this is something I will be passing onto our Interior Design students here at the University of Tasmania as 'haptic' design forms the basis of what we teach here, incorporating all of the senses. So hearing this from people in practice reinforces to the students that what they are learning here is important to the industry they are about to enter. Cheers!