People Research Report

by guy keulemans on December 8, 2008

My people research has taken two forms. The first is a four part survey (found here)I sent out into the wild via Facebook. The survey dealt with the perception of scale and aesthetics in chair models, long-lasting and sacred objects and the supplementary data in 4 sections (sections 1 and 3 being related). Out of an estimated 250-500 people who received the survey, I received 47 responses over a two week period. A report of the results are here.

The second part of my research involves communication with design historians and archaeologist, and for this I compiled a list of questions embedded in a text (found here). The text was a contextual narrative with examples of objects from pre-history, and design history up until a few hundred years ago, with related modern examples where they exist. It was difficult for me at first to embrace the study of objects from the archaeological record because their aesthetics are often difficult to understand, however, much analysis goes into their sociological function as well as material construction and this is good information to absorb. The text and narrative was broken up into 6 sections or qualities that I feel are important to the ability of objects to survive; materials and construction, ubiquity, context, aesthetics, function and cultural significance. I have sent the text off to several academics, however am still awaiting a response. Because the text is fairly involved, and now is a busy time of year for academics especially in the southern hemisphere, this unfortunately may not happen until after the xmas break period. And so the remainder of this report will detail the results from the survey.

Survey Results
In the first question of the survey, subjects were asked to rank 5 chairs shown at equal size. The chairs are formally related to one another via the use of a scale manipulation that corresponds with a “growth” concept, though this was not evident at first. To the participant, what is clear is that the chairs are related somewhat (mainly by color and some common aesthetic features), but differ drastically in terms of thinness and thickness, lightness and weight.

Chair D was designed first and served as a template for the other chairs; it can be considered to possess the original genetic code passed onto its older and younger siblings. It was also voted the most popular in the survey. Just behind Chair D were chair C and E, “one step away” relations, followed by least favorites Chair A and B, who possess the most extreme stretch of the genetic code towards “thinness”. This result could be interpreted to suggest that this system of scaling a structural system thinner and thicker weakens aesthetic appeal, or that the original chair D makes more visual sense, in that its structure was designed rationally rather than inherited from a sibling. Another possibility is that my own initial aesthetic judgment as a designer was stronger and more able to connect with an audience in the first design than subsequent generative design of the other chairs. In regards to the lowest ranked, it appeared from the responses that the participants were responding to its thinness; in that humans are basically a little concerned about sitting on something that looks too light. However, lightness and thinness was also the reason for some participants to rate it highly. Actually, the concern for structure is reflected in most responses; many described the appeal of chair D as “robust”, “strong”, “bold” etc; more at least than those who used words for chair A or B, such as “light” “elegant” “mobile”. However, in the reasons for not liking chair A, apprehensive expressions such as “death-trap” (!) were common.

The next part of the survey diverged away from the chairs (necessarily, as I will show later) with freeform questions about old, personal and sacred objects. The responses were very varied, but with some clear trends. In response to the question, “how old is the oldest thing you own” the majority of responses were over one hundred years older, with some even older, up to 1500 years, but comparatively few younger than 100 years. This suggests to me that despite the contemporary problem of planned obsolescence and our inurement to it, we still have a place in our lives for very old objects. A positive result! The range of objects was fairly evenly divided between larger items (such as furniture, carpets and musical instruments, and smaller objects (such as jewellery, photographs and antique coins). Against my expectation that fragile objects would be well represented in the range of old objects, sturdy objects were far more common. This is more logical, but I was surprised because I had assumed that fragile objects do not necessarily have shorter life spans because of the care taken in their protection.

The answers to questions continued to become more and more personal and subjective, however I find these subjective responses very inspirational; a response from one subject described an old chest of drawers belonging to her grandmother – although this would be reason enough for its value to most participants, her responses admitted that the real reason she liked it was the use of the now rare New Zealand rimu wood.

In responses to the questions about sacred and objects, I was relieved to discover that many responses were not about religious artifacts, rather books, jewellery, photographs and antiques. This corresponds to my existing definition of sacred as not something necessarily religious but rather something that can elevate your spirit and well-being. The range of answers to personally valuable items was even broader, and began to incorporate technological devices (especially laptops and cars), tools and collections. Conclusion: there is no sharp definition of what constitutes a sacred object, each object must posses a personal relationship with the owner, and only blurry nexus of factors can be defined for sure: a combination of age, personal history and family connection. Qualities such as religious meaning, valuable materials or specific function are often present but not always. Aesthetics were not often considered in the responses of the participants, however this could easily be because of not being emphasized or alluded to in the questions.

The third part of the survey was a progression from the first part, but with the chairs displayed in context together as a family. The results change dramatically; Chair E becomes the front runner with a large lead, popular with 45% of those surveyed, followed by Chair A, at 28%. Why do the chairs at the extreme ends of the genetic deformation receive the highest ranking? In the case of the the smallest chair, its cuteness; an overwhelming number of responses mentioned this quality. In the case of Chair A, anthropomorphism created a new opinion; what was seen as skinny and fragile became protective and caring. This surely a result of the composition however, if the same chair was seen to the side and not hovering above the others, I believe this response would not have happened. What really surprised me however, was the degree to which the participants understood my design process; responses referred to the “genetic code”, the growth of children and and even the awkward phases of adolescence, all conepts running through my mind when I was creating the chairs. I surely see this as a result of the anthropomorphism of the family metaphor. It is a metaphor that can be easily understood and appreciated by many people; a universal value.

The idea of discovering universal values from a survey leads us to the last section; perso
nal data. I asked for age, sex and ethnic/cultural background because I believe that these qualities that are interesting when attempting to discover universal values, although in hindsight I think I was being overly cautious in asking for personal information and should have asked for education and career data as well, among other things. The results were weighted to people of european background but not excessively so. When I analyse these results, I must also remind myself that the majority of participants are Facebook users, and therefore belong to a specific social group (technologically savvy?) and are also rather young, as reflected in the age results.

Application of a scale manipulation or generative system for furniture could be successful, but only if it includes an anthropomorphic quality. Furniture can be far more accessible if it relates to human qualities. Therefore the design needs to communicate its context. As for old and sacred objects, I realize that good choice of material and sturdy construction are fundamental, but less obvious is which other qualities should be applied. I believe this will come down to more intuitive design decisions, although I do want to create something that can have a very real and personal relationship to its owner, even if this is not outwardly evident at first glance or use i.e an object that manifests a beautiful quality, but as it ages rather than at first sight.

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