Think of the last time you heard someone say “everything went smoothly” or “I’m having a rough time.” We often use the word “hard” to connote difficulty (“this homework is hard!”) or seriousness (“that’s a hard-news headline”). Likewise, “heavy” can imply emotional gravity as well as physical (as in “famine is a heavy topic”).
Turns out that associating certain emotional qualities with physical characteristics isn’t just a matter of convenient metaphors—it’s something we do on a deep psychological level as well.
A 2010 study published in the journal “Science” provides interesting insights into how humans respond socially and emotionally to physical weight, texture, and firmness.
According to the abstract, “holding heavy or light clipboards, solving rough or smooth puzzles, and touching hard or soft objects nonconsciously influenced impressions and decisions formed about unrelated people and situations.”
A “Psychology Today” post digging into the study offers these and other highlights from its six experiments:
Weight – When participants were asked to rate job applicants, those holding heavier clipboards tended to perceive applicants as more serious and qualified. Similarly, heavy clipboards made people more likely to
Texture – Participants working in groups completed puzzles with either smooth or rough pieces, then were asked to evaluate their interactions. Those who worked with smooth pieces tended to view themselves as more cooperative and social than those who worked with rough pieces.
Firmness – Participants considering purchase prices for a car were affected by the relative cushiness of their seats: harder chairs produced more rigid negotiators, while softer chairs produced more flexible ones.
This has some pretty fascinating (if not unfamiliar) implications for the practice of exhibit design, in which every aspect of a physical environment is a product of intentional choices made to support a particular story, theme, or experience.
For example, one might posit that an exhibit intended to evoke empathy or public support for a cause—or even donations—might be best served by smooth, soft, and “warm” material choices—think sanded wood and plush seating versus cold metal and rigid benches.
On the other hand, a display that seeks to create a sense of urgency about a particular problem or threat could make good use of hard, heavy materials and rough surfaces.
Of course, some exhibits by their very nature cannot be hands-on (for example, a display of priceless/ancient/sensitive artifacts). However, even “look but don’t touch” types of exhibits can still take advantage of “textures.”
In her book “Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions,” author Kathleen McClean writes, “People will respond to the textural qualities and surfaces of the things around them—they feel with their eyes as well as their fingers.”
In addition to utilizing visual textures, there may be other opportunities to incorporate true tactile moments into object-driven exhibits—even if they’re not necessarily the star of the show.
For example, a textured layer or raised text on a graphic panel can add subtle dimensionality and drama to the visitor experience.
After all, “…all of us involved in caring for exhibits can testify to the number of fingerprints on every conceivable exhibit surface,” McClean notes; “…why not put that inevitable behavior to good use?”
Ain’t that the truth! At Taylor Studios, our default assumption is basically that anything and everything that’s NOT completely behind glass WILL be touched by visitors—whether or not that’s the designer’s intent.
This manner of thinking motivates us to not only select durable, time-tested materials and fabrication methods for everything we build—but also to keep reaching for ways to layer tactile experiences into our exhibit designs.