Touching design

As a design student, it was impressed upon me the importance of how users intimately interact with a product design. I have never forgotten the handshake, the contact points, and I still use it to decide which things to buy. It’s how I evaluate everything, a benchmark.

I remember how BMW made the interior light fade instead of just switching on or off, and how that made me feel it was somehow of superior quality. How my CD player grabbed my disc solidly and drew it into the slot – how the lid of my cassette player slowly slid open – the sound of a Jaguar car door shutting.

Similarly, I remember so many things that felt lightweight, plasticky and cheap.

I was chatting with a colleague at work about vinyl making a comeback. He said “Why? the sound is terrible, and you get scratches and hiss.” He was genuinely puzzled.

That was when I realised how much tactility we’ve lost – and how that might be something we feel lacking today.

A digital file might sound better, and be conjured up easily on a phone or laptop – but with vinyl there is handling. The design handshake. You get artwork, a card sleeve, the disc itself and the ritual of taking it out, putting it on, and turning it over when the side was played through.

This is common to all audio formats – cassette, CD or 8-Track. You got a “thing”.

Reading a Kindle book is great – cheap and very convenient. But it also lacks that handshake. A book feels, smells and looks better – and an expensive book – a hardback with a dust cover – is a prized possession to be cared for.

I worry about the future in this respect; driverless cars, voice activated audio and video and more besides. If you are not driving the car, how can it thrill?

At one time, people bought a daily newspaper – it  was used as a tablecloth, a napkin, to wrap chips, scrunched up to clean stainless steel and windows, rolled-up to swat flies, stuffed into damp shoes, cut into party decorations, used to draw a coal fire… it was read, the crossword was done, articles clipped out, ads circled, moustaches doodled onto the photographed luminaries. It was laid under carpets and used to fill gaps in window frames.

Today, we read our news online, listen to the radio or watch TV.

I’m no different; I stopped wearing a wristwatch in favour of the smartphone. I put away my cassettes, videos, CDs, DVDs, LPs, 45s, reels, books, magazines… I will ask Google before looking up a dictionary or pull a book from my shelves. I threw out my maps and atlases years ago in favour of my sat nav and google maps.

My TV is too thin to have a decent speaker, and I have lost all concept of quality, accepting whatever my phone or TV gives me. I put up with slow browsers, buffering, Freeview digital “Max Headroom” glitches. This is what I have become.

My pens have dried up, my watches stopped. Nothing ticks, nothing takes time to dry, nothing needs a tactility skill, fingers swipe screens and click mice.

I have playing cards, chess sets, wind-up toys and board games in a sealed box in the cellar. My children play with tech, and buy apps. Will they grow up with no understanding of what a new book feels and smells like? What it’s like to be given a designed product as a gift? Will they know or miss knowing that feeling you get  when you clean the capstan and recording heads, when a tape desk has been demagnetised, when a record has been brushed, when a guitar has been restrung and tuned, when a car was driven with joy and appreciation?

Will they care about design? Will they grow fond of a thing? Will they relate to the ghost in the machine?

I wonder if vinyl’s return reveals an innate need…

 

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