On surface. Promise of self
Surface of an object as its physical skin literally goes ‘beyond’ and ‘over’ appearance. At best, a surface is a beginning of contemplation, attachment and a relationship.
TEXT HEINI LEHTINEN
Sea of book covers surrounds a person standing in a bookshop. Some of them scream, some whisper. Look at me, touch me; be enticed by me. I will tell you a story, take you to a journey; entertain you, teach you.
The person touches a book and another, holds them, gently flips through pages that not many have yet touched, and the most probably not read. He browses through running, standing and stating letters on pages; words that turn into sentences; poems in which every syllable is loaded with thought, emotion, and meaning; knowledge, stories, all the thinking that writing a book requires.
Interestingly, language doesn’t necessarily matter. Even when written on an unknown language, a book as an object enchants with its cover and appearance even when we know that the content stays mystery unless you learn the language.
Graphic design is the surface of a book, the first we see and an initial feature that attracts our attention — or makes us reject the book and leave it to the shelf. The surface is a physical incentive to touch and feel the object or to reject it, and an emotional promise of the experience we will gain with the object.
Appearance is the face of an object, literally ‘a look’ or ‘an expression;’ ‘likeness’ and ‘an image’ as a face is for a human being. It is to be looked at, and primarily perceived visually.
A surface of an object, its physical skin, literally goes ‘beyond’ and ‘over’ appearance. It is ‘an outmost boundary and outside part’ of an object, but with sur-, there is always an innate reference to something beyond to what can be seen and touched immediately.
Hugo Von Hofmannsthal states in ‘Book of Friends’ that “Depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface.” Instead of hiding the depth, the surface is innately either a first step to a deeper connection and relationship with an object, or a medium for contemplation on the object, its purpose, and also its creator. Whereas the initial attraction lies in the eye, the reflective level is the level of conscious thought and contemplation on the surface and the object.
A surface unites contradictory qualities, it is the boundary between outer and inner; physical and mental; material and immaterial attraction, one leading to another pass the other one the test first. As often in relation to human beings, surface of an object is an initiator of physical desire and seduction potentially leading to immaterial connection. It is the first physical attribute we see, feel and touch prior to being better acquainted with the person or the object. It is an initial phase of attraction, a make or break in a relationship with an object.
Donald Norman calls the level of the brain that is activated in the initial encounter with surface and appearance of an object a primitive level with a potential to leading up to the highest, reflective level. This initial, visceral level is triggered by physical attributes through sensorial perception.
Norman also writes about Julie Khalavsky and Nathan Shedroff’s theory on seduction in relation to material or virtual objects. The first step in the three-step theory, seduction equals with Norman’s primitive, visceral level of attraction, and is followed by forming a relationship with an object and having a meaningful ending in the relationship with the object.
From point of view of consumerism, seductiveness of surface and appearance of an object is crucial. As Donald Norman states, the designs or products intended to attract at the point of purchase but not necessarily much longer, create a primitive powerful, positive emotional signal in the brain but don’t necessarily fulfil the promise of the appearance through functioning as intended. That is a phenomenon too familiar in today’s consumption-oriented society. If the desired lifespan of a design or an object — a shared journey of the design and the user — is only needed to be of limited time and the relationship between the object and the user a short-lived one, primarily appealing to the visceral level of instant attraction would be enough.
In the ‘Book of Friends,’ Von Hofmannsthal quotes La Rochefoucauld, who states that “modern love is short on melody, over-orchestrated.” Not only to human relationships, La Rochefoucauld’s words apply to our relationships with objects. Instead of forming committed relationships with objects, we let ourselves be enticed with ever-new ones.
To reach the point of sur-, ‘beyond’ the initial seductive qualities of the surface are not enough, though. Reaching beyond the seductive, physical level of attraction that the surface of an object provides is a prerequisite to contemplation and long-term satisfaction with an object. Whereas surface of an object is sometimes a ‘make or break’ of a product on the market, the key to wanting the object and making a user of the object want a long relationship with it, is emotional attachment.
The surface of the object makes an emotional promise, but to form a deeper relationship with the object, and the object to become a reflective representation of the user, it needs to continually fulfil the promise. As Norman states, the real value of objects that appeal to the reflective level lies in fulfilling emotional needs of establishing one’s self-image and place in the world. A road to long-term satisfaction runs through reflection, commitment and attachment that go beyond the surface of an object, and reach the level in which the object tells something about its user to other people, but also to the user him or herself.
Finding a book that entices with its appearance at first, and teaches something of the reader to him or herself can lead the book becoming a loyal comrade. It can be something to go back to and slow down with. It can become a regular companion in the last moments before falling asleep at nights. It can be an experience one doesn’t want to rush through, but to take time with it and its insights. It can provide an occasional break or rest in the busiest of environments. At best, it can inspire and guide through hardships.
When reaching the reflective level, the language used to describe the relationship between a user and an object doesn’t differ much from the language used to describe a human relationship. A loyal companion. The one that I go back to. Regular companion in the last moments before falling asleep. The one that I touch first thing in the morning. Describing a relationship with an object such as a book can even go further: it heard my thoughts before no-one else did in terms of writing notes on pages or on notes application of a mobile phone on a busy morning tram or in moments of insomnia and sudden nocturnal flood of thoughts.
That could be a gentle description of a lover.
Depth really isn’t hidden on the surface, but a surface is a promise of a journey to contemplation, reflection, understanding and a relationship. At best, a journey to a lover.
The interview is a part of ‘Beauty in Exile,’ a research project by design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Beauty in Exile’ looks into the meanings of beauty, design and architecture in societal contexts.
The essay was originally published in La Terrasse ‘Surfaces, vol. 1’ on Dutch Design Week 2015.