We recently interviewed dozens of people who buy and install electronic products. Our goal was to understand how the aesthetics of these products—shapes, colors, and textures—drive preference. What we observed was perplexing. But more on that in a moment.
To stay current on consumer electronics I occasionally walk through Best Buy, Apple, and other brick-and-mortar stores. Not so much to buy things, but to touch the products and see what’s on offer to consumers. Recently I was in the mood to buy. I was looking for a wireless speaker for my television. Walking along the aisle, I glanced at each speaker on display. All were rectangular boxes with clean sharp edges–today’s prevailing design. Then I came to an egg-shaped speaker. I stopped, I stared, I stroked its rounded top. It was alluring. It made me feel both calm and intrigued at the same time. I loved it.
Then I moved on, and bought a rectangular box.
What drew me to the curved design? And why did I forego it and buy the rectangle?
In a brain imaging study conducted at Harvard Medical School* people were shown a range of products—everything from furniture and watches to dental floss containers. Some were curved, others square and sharp. The study found that viewing objects with sharp edges activates a part of the brain that processes fear. The researchers believe that since sharp objects suggest physical danger, we now see sharp lines as threatening. Curvature, on the other hand, implies a lack of threat—it implies safety.
Another study** showed that people looking at objects with curved or non-parallel lines, compared to straight lines, had significantly more activity in the part of the brain connected to emotions. Curves, the researchers observed, impact our feelings, and therefore, can drive preference.
While all this may be true, people don’t always prefer the curvy object. Sometimes this is because function trumps form (straight lines simply work better in a straight world). Other times it’s the zeitgeist of our times—the prevailing spirit, attitudes, fashions, and societal norms—that influences our perception and our preference.
Zeitgeist can be a positive influence on culture as it stimulates new ideas and creative solutions to problems. And the zeitgeist can shape opinion and preference for fashion, architecture, and product design—driving us to prefer rectangular boxes despite our genetic inclination to the contrary.
So, what is the “design zeitgeist” of today? While it has many facets, two in particular interest me, and each has a yin to the yang.
1. Emphasis on Surface Treatment Over Novel Form
This is the focus on surface design rather than innovative forms like the egg-shaped speaker at Best Buy. Surface design includes the exterior material, the finish and feel and color, surface texture and pattern, and very subtle curves that transition one surface to another—curves so tame as to be almost imperceptible. The emphasis on surface leads to a plethora of products that look like simple boxes when you squint your eyes. But when you look closely you’ll see that the devil (and the gods) are in the details.
…And then there’s the flip side…
Parametricism (or parametric design)
Parametricism is using computer technology to envision and produce complex curvilinear forms—shapes so outrageous as to be previously unimaginable, and previously unmanufacturable. It leads to intricate organic curves and patterns that are now manufacturable through additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing).
2. Constant Interconnectivity
The availability of information on the web and social media impacts our perception and preference of products and brands. Unfortunately, it also leads to information overload, a focus on self-promotion, and a tragic reduction in true human contact.
But this is tempered by…
A greater sense of purpose
Our aspirations for purpose today impact the way we purchase and use products. Millennials in particular seek purpose over paycheck, and they care about how a product is made, and its impact on people and the environment.
As a design innovation firm, BOLTGROUP stays informed on the prevailing trends, fashions, and attitudes that compose the zeitgeist. And our process interprets the nuances of consumer behavior to create products that hit the sweet spot of macro trends, consumer preference, and true human needs.
Now about that research we did on aesthetics in electronic products—it’s confidential, but I can share a single observation. One of the participants, a guy who frequently buys electronics, sat at his desk covered with the products he’d bought, every one a modern, rectangular box. We asked what he looks for when shopping for these products. He stared at the ceiling for a moment, then answered—”something with curves.”