Touch Sense Overview III

Touch is a useful sense for design, because it is pervasive and immediate. We can use it for any and every design, and it would not seem out of place. The hands and body allow us to transfer knowledge without communicating with writing. In addition, this transference can take place without the use of vision, which tends to be the sense we lean into most. As such, we can have sensory experience without looking, and we can have multiple inputs across the body to provide two or more meanings. However, it usually better to provide a consistent message in a design, even with multiple inputs.

A change to make touch a central sense for design is the transformation of a space to allow repetitive or continuous interface with surfaces to allow the body to take the design intent. This would mean changing the dimensions and orientation of the spaces to provide a more constricted and serpentine space to ensure the body has access to surfaces as moments of experience. So, a great volume would not be best to provide a textural narrative, instead a space that is more like a corridor or well-furnished room will provide better opportunities to tell a story through touch. One of the best and most consistent surfaces for touch is the floor, which must always be traversed. The floor can have various materials and textures, but it must be clear for the designer what and when to use these textures, otherwise the meaning could be lost.

To improve the use of touch in design, we should have a thesis for our design. Then, the senses should be tools that are used specifically and aptly to tell the desired story. This would probably mean that we should be sparing in the sensory inputs to limit experiential overload, in most instances. With fewer experiences, it is easier to control the story, and the more sense inputs we add, the closer we should watch the meaning and definition of the sense.

If we were to only use touch, we should have a base state, and then have a clear intent with the material or texture added for variation. What are the meanings of various materials and textures? Are soft things happy and comfortable? Are hard and sharp things mean and standoffish? Are these understandings of materials common across cultures? Some surely are, as we experience these forms of touch with the body, and the body attempts to find a state of comfort and safety continuously. A rigid and ridged object will likely provide some form of excitement and not lull the user into sleep. However, surely there are variations in meanings of materials from person to person and culture to culture. Some might find the warm and fuzzy experience of flannel as comforting, while others might find it hot and overwhelming. In addition, the way the sense is experienced may agitate some but soothe others. For example, running your bare feet across a swath of carpet could be satisfying for you, but bother another, like fingernails on a blackboard.

It is hard to have a design that does not incorporate touch through at least the feet and floor. However, touch is not required for design, even though it tends to be present at least in the materiality of the design output. In this way, the designer should acknowledge the presence of the sense of touch, and provide a clear use of the sense in at least the places where the human body comes into contact with the design installation. With this, we can look at various uses of touch. Touch can be used to provide a visceral reaction, convey information, complement meaning from another sense, and counter another sense.

To use touch, we require our body, and with the body in a space, we have presence. Therefore, touch requires and exploits presence. We cannot have a haptic or textural landscape at distance, so this can attract and annunciate people to a space, especially in a world that relies so much on the digital and virtual. A website or social media surface cannot provide touch, and the designer can capitalize on this to bring people to a space or place that provides the sense. In contrast, we can remove the sense of touch to deprive and direct through the use of pauses in stimulation–a cold, hard space is not likely to make people linger. Furthermore, the hint of the lack of experience can push individuals to move to another space in a sensory form of propaganda, the bandwagon or the fear of missing out.


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