While there is already a rich corpus of knowledge relating to the functionality of movement, the aesthetics of movement is relatively unexplored territory in design. When we watch the movement of non-human objects or physical phenomena, we experience vicarious sensations towards them - the stiffness experienced while watching ticket barriers creaking, or the sensation of floating softness arising from observing a curtain waving in a gentle breeze, for instance. But it is little understood how and why we experience such empathic sensations, let alone, how such experiences can be designed. Given the rapid advancement of technology where technological artefacts will increasingly be deployed in everyday situations, it is a timely task for designers to seek insight into the aesthetics of movement.
The phenomenon central to my research is kinaesthetic empathy, which refers to the experience of the kinetic quality of observed movements. The obvious example is watching dance; spectators can empathically ‘feel’ the movements of ballet dancers, such as the impact on their legs while landing on the floor after a large leap, without performing the same movement themselves. While kinaesthetic empathy is known to happen relatively easily between a group of people, a number of studies suggest that it can also happen in the observation of the movement of animals, and even that of non-living objects. But how do we empathise with the movement of objects that do not share the same body structure as ours?
Since it is often difficult to verbalise kinaesthetic sensations, I used body movements to articulate kinaesthetic empathy toward objects in motion. This resulted in the creation of a new framework, techniques and vocabulary to explore the aesthetic quality of movement. The most significant is my original idea of kinaesthetic elements – fragments of kinaesthetic sensations that are projected onto the observed movement, identified through changes in my aesthetic sensitivity to qualities of movement. Finally, 15 elements were identified and categorised as presented on the website.
Four RCA designers, including myself, used the motion vocabulary to design everyday objects with movement from the viewpoint of kinaesthetic empathy. Some redesigned the movement of objects that already tend to be designed with movement (e.g. ticket barriers and clocks) while others worked on those that are usually designed statically (e.g. humidifiers, bedside lamps). The short film below presents seven concepts designed by the designers and animated by the puppeteers.
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