Archive for Aesthetics of joy

Aesthetics of Joy has its own home!

23 June 2009


Aesthetics of Joy has become my main focus these days, and certainly has been the main focus of my posts on this site for a good long while. In light of this, I’ve decided to give the project its own blog, where I’ll be focusing most of my time and energy for the time being. I’ll be taking a hiatus from Sketchbook, but will be posting much more frequently on Joy than I ever did here, so please come visit!

How does the Met keep their sculptures so shiny?

14 May 2009

With a swiffer! P&G couldn’t make a better ad if they tried.

Seriously though, there was something really joyful about seeing this no nonsense woman assiduously dusting stone abs and bronze buttocks as though they were furniture in someone’s apartment. This is a joy example that doesn’t bear many of the typical signals of joyful aesthetics—saturated colors, cuteness, youth, play, or nostalgia. In fact, just the opposite, here is an instance of work, and not just any work, but manual labor often considered drudgery, seeming joyful. Why?

It hinges on the pleasurable disruption of expectations. The expectations here are unconscious, stemming from the conventions of a museum. In a museum, the boundary between art and viewer is a sacred line. We can look, but not touch. To see someone so matter-of-factly breaching such a barrier jars you out of your normal experience and diverts your attention.

So it’s a noticeable disruption, a departure from the ordinary. But why is it joyful? First, the idea of touching the sculptures is appealing, and it appeals to the unfiltered, tactile inner child in all of us. Children always seek to touch as part of their sensory experience, and it’s only as adults that we learn to control that desire. So watching someone touch the sculptures connects us to our own desire to do just that, and the sensation is something we imagine as pleasurable. (This is well-trod territory, cf. “Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” among others.) Second, there is the fact that most of us never think about the cleaning of the artworks in a museum. We assume that they must get cleaned, but that it’s probably done off-hours, at night with special high-tech cleaning instruments. So the second joyful aspect, beyond the breaking of the touch-barrier, is that it reveals something normally hidden to us, and reveals it to be contradictory to our assumptions. The revelation of hidden aspects of things is naturally pleasurable to us (think voyeurism, or The Discovery Channel) as it satisfies our natural curiosity.

But the kicker is the juxtaposition between the glossy, venerable sculpture and the mundane household cleaning tool with the faintly silly name. The swiffer is a complete oddity in a museum, and that contrast is ironic and enjoyable.

The best part of all this is how it then gets encoded into memory. I don’t think I’ll ever look at that sculpture again without imagining this matter-of-fact woman and her swiffer, and having a little smile at the memory. And I think the Met will always be a little more joyful now that I’ve had a funny little peek into its hidden side.

Rainbow sightings and joy in the natural vs. built environment

6 March 2009

This morning’s joy discovery: a whole site dedicated to pictures of rainbow sightings! There is something so charming about the artist’s desire to establish a collective forum for appreciating these evanescent displays of pure color.

I think the rainbow is one of the truest symbols of joy. Though we know the conditions that produce it, its emergence is always unexpected, and at any age feels somewhat magical. I think this is because it is a visual disruption of the laws that govern our everyday visual experience of the world.

One thing I’ve been wrestling with lately is the way in which joy is so often triggered by natural events and phenomena, both at the macro and micro levels. How then do we create things that bring joy? But it follows that if joy results from a pleasurable disruption of natural laws, then perhaps there is a parallel in the built environment, where joy results from a departure from the laws that govern the designed world. To some extent, these laws are the same. The built environment resides within the natural environment, so both are subject to laws of physics and to the limits of our perceptual capabilities. However, there are conventions that govern the behavior of the built environment, and perhaps unlocking some of these codes will suggest ways to integrate more joyful patterns of design.

Hidden color

1 March 2009

There’s something about a peek of hidden color that is so joyful. It seems just right for the gloomy landscape in which we find ourselves right now. Colored linings and interiors signify a secret pleasure, directed inwards at the user rather than outwards at the viewer.

This coat is from Raf Simons fall collection for Jil Sander, inspired by the ceramics of Pol Chambost, a French artist (a resemblance that is clear from side-by-side comparisons). Interesting, because product designers are often inspired by fashion but you don’t often see fashion inspired by tableware.

What is joy?

20 February 2009

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into definitions of joy. I have this idea of what joy means to me, and to this project, in my head, but I’m realizing there are differences of opinion. A “joy vs. happiness” google led me to a large number of Christian message boards, where I realized that in some religious circles there is a distinctly different definition of joy. According to a number of these posts, joy is something lasting and spiritual, an inner happiness that comes directly from God. Happiness is externally driven, dependent on things that “happen” to you. (Writers point to the common root hap-, which relates to chance and fortune.)

I can understand this definition, but it is important for me to note that it is completely contrary to my definition of joy. In my mental model, as I think is true for many people, happiness is a state of mind, a general form of positive emotion. Joy, on the other hand, is a momentary burst of positive emotion, triggered by an external source.

Joy also gets conflated with happiness in many writings, or substituted entirely for it. I don’t want confusion, but I’m not going to get the whole world to agree on one definition of joy. What I really need is just to clearly define what joy means in the context of this exploration. So, here’s a starting point, a list of characteristics that define the concept I mean when I refer to “joy.”

  • Joy is a kind of positive emotion or feeling.
  • Joy is physical as well as mental. Joy is also physical, before its mental. (Damasio)
  • Joy is a momentary burst of emotion, rather than a prolonged state of being, like contentment or happiness.
  • Joy is an intense form of happiness, but not as intense as ecstasy or euphoria.
  • Joy is an energizing form of happiness, in contrast to bliss or contentment, which are calming and serene.
  • Joy typically is triggered by an external stimulus, which may be further reinforced by stimulating memories related to joy.
  • But, memory is not necessary to feel joy, because even very young children feel joy.
  • Joy seems to have something to do with expectations. Unexpected positive events are more likely to be joyful than anticipated ones. (Hypothesis)
  • Joy is renewable. The same stimulus can trigger joy over and over again. (Essential, core premise.)
  • Joy, unlike ecstasy, has no hangover. While intense highs of positive emotion can leave you feeling down after they pass, joy usually leaves you feeling better than before. In this case, we might say that joy has a positive hangover, and may have lasting effects on emotional wellbeing. (Hypothesis)
  • Joy has a playful, active quality to it.
  • Joy is often connected with children or a child’s world view.
  • Pleasure is a component of joy, but is not itself joy. Pleasure is part of a lower order, dialectical system (the pain-pleasure responses) involved in homeostasis. Pain and pleasure responses are naturally activated as part of the process of emoting, which is why emotions are (nearly?) always perceived as positive or negative. But, the emotion also involves a more complex series of responses.

The act of writing down my assumptions, beliefs, and learnings about joy was very powerful. Whereas before I felt a little bit lost in the thicket of data, now I feel like I have a point of departure from which to work in testing my premises. Sometimes we hesistate to commit ideas to paper until they’re worked through and clear in our minds. But when there’s still a lot you don’t know, it’s really helpful just to get the ideas out and be able to look at them.

Toy Fair 2009: Not so joyful

18 February 2009

I managed to score a pass to sneak a peak at this year’s New York Toy Fair today. (Thanks, Rikki!) If anything’s going to be joyful, you’d expect it to be toys. So why wasn’t the experience joyful?

First off, I met some sad, sad exhibitors today. It seems like smaller independent toy manufacturers are really hurting these days. Even after I fessed up that I was a designer and not a buyer, I still had plenty of people who wanted to talk. So that made me feel a little sad. Then of course the Toy Fair is at the Javitz Center. Trekking out there in the freezing rain is enough to make a grouch out of anyone. And thirdly I did not manage to score a free sample of the amazing edible play dough, which I clearly needed.

But mostly, the reason Toy Fair wasn’t joyful was that there’s just too much. I don’t know how kids think anymore with all the chaos of today’s toys. Don’t get me wrong—I did see some incredibly interesting and well-designed toys. A lot of the advances in robotics and the science kits just look so much cooler than they did when I was a kid, and a lot of manufacturers are trying to weave in green messages which I think is just great. A few companies are trying to strip out the clutter and make simple things with great sensory appeal and tactile value, like these plush balls I found so irresistible (though I can’t seem to remember the manufacturer’s name) but mostly it’s just a big, loud, overwhelming landscape.

I spoke for a little while with a guy at a booth displaying no-spill bubbles. I asked him why bubbles were joyful. He thought for a second and said, “I think because they’re just so simple.” There may be something to that, and may explain why I left Toy Fair intrigued and stimulated, but not joyful.

The joy of intangible color

13 February 2009

Intense colors seem so far to be strongly associated with joy. I’m thinking of rainbows, candy, and balloons, but also sea, sun, and sky. When asked which color they associate with joy, people have been mentioning a wide range of hues – reds, yellows, blues, violets, but they are all very pure and saturated – no grayishness, no tinting, no muddiness.

I have also been wondering if there is something about natural color that is joyful. The colors of nature are often intense but rarely flat. Of course, the rainbow is natural, and these colors are are pure as it gets. But there’s something in the quality of the color too.

Color theorists talk about different kinds of color to differentiate, say, the blue on your shirt from the blue of the sky. They might be exactly the same hue/saturation/value combo, but they’ll still be different. The blue of your shirt is called surface color, because it’s applied to a surface and can be understood in the context of space. The color in the sky has no spatial information to it; you can’t tell where it comes from or where it’s located, how close the source is or how far. That kind of color is called film color, which I always remember because it’s kind of filmy and intangible. There’s something fascinating about film color, because you can’t really put your finger on it, nor can you reproduce it. There’s also illumination color, like the color of sunlight, which is even less tangible and equally as intriguing, because its color affects all the other colors around it.

Sunlight also comes up frequently in discussions of joy, and I wonder if this intangible color idea has a connection to the idea of expectations disruption which is one of many ideas I have around what causes us to feel joy. There is something about pleasurable things that seem out of step with the laws of nature that govern our everyday existence, like rainbows, buoyancy, bubbles, snowflakes, and flying, that seems to trigger joy, especially in children. These laws of nature form a certain kind of expectation. Of course we know that these occurrences can be explained by physics, but our physical experience of them, particularly the very first time, is magical. I wonder if the same principle applies to the color in the sky or of sunlight, and if these colors are not more joyful because of their elusiveness.

Defining joy: some early thoughts

11 February 2009

The very first task for this project on the aesthetics of joy is to understand what joy is: how it works in the body and the brain. If our objective is to create joy, then we must first know what joy is. (It’s also essential to know what joy is not, though I’ll come to this later.)

I’ve been weeding through a number of emotional models, trying to understand how emotions actually work – what are the mechanisms, neural pathways, and chemicals that trigger various emotions? A number of the theories I came across suggest a causal relationship between the physical behaviors and reactions of an emotion and the cognitive perception of that emotion, but not in the order we might think. We like to think our brains control our bodies, but actually some psychologists believe that it is the pre-conscious reactions of our bodies that make us feel a certain way. The James-Lange hypothesis, for example, suggests that felt emotions are the perception of autonomic physical responses to external stimuli. So, in other words, the presence of a snake triggers visceral changes that prime us to react to the threat, such as a quickening heart rate, and it’s the brain’s perception of the change in bodily state that makes us feel the emotion “fear”.

The research on facial feedback is another example, where the same idea has been proposed regarding facial expressions. We think that we smile because we are happy, but actually, some research shows that at least to some extent, the smile comes before the emotional feeling of happiness, and that inducing a smile by contracting a specific set of muscles can make a person feel happier.

In his book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Antonio Damasio continues down this line of reasoning, suggesting that emotion, consisting of the set of bodily responses to a stimulus, and the corresponding feeling in the mind are causally related in the same way. In other words, the body reacts to the stimulus by producing an emotional response – in the case of joy, this might be a smile or laughter, a relaxing of major muscles, the production or suppression of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, and so on. The mind then perceives this physical response and appraises the situation, producing a feeling that is entirely internal. Interestingly, a stimulus in Damasio’s world can be either a real event in the environment or it can be a memory.

Damasio’s is the most cohesive account of the this theory I’ve yet read, and though there are quibbles with it, right now I’m finding it a useful framework to start to understand how joy works. Joyful stimuli lead to joyful physical reactions which lead to the feeling of joy. In this framework there are three major areas to explore: triggers, expressions, and feelings.

Which leads to questions… What are the physical expressions of joy? Are the expressions of joy different than the reactions of happiness? In other words, is there anything substantively different between joy and happiness at the level of expression, or is the different in the cognitive appraisal, dictated by context and experience, of the emotional sensations experienced. And then, does that mean that the triggers of joy and of happiness are the same, but are contextually different? Or are they fundamentally different?

One hypothesis could be that joy is an intense form of happiness that arises from the same stimuli but under different conditions… For example, seeing a good friend for a planned dinner might elicit happiness, but seeing a friend who has come in from out of town unexpectedly would elicit joy. Again, expectations play a role. Another hypothesis might be that joy is qualitatively different from happiness and that the triggers are just fundamentally different in nature. For example, a rainbow makes you feel joyful but it is unlikely to create a real sense of happiness. Joy is intense and comes in moments, whereas happiness is more even-keeled, but lasting. This would seem to suggest that they cannot be merely single-axis variants of the same thing…

Image from flickr member Orazio.

Joy and expectation

11 February 2009

My first way in to trying to understand what joy is has been to take examples of joyful objects and experiences and try to observe commonalities and patterns. In discussions with friends and family, one theme has emerged again and again: the contradiction of our expectations in a happy or pleasurable way.

Essentially, what I’ve just said in too many words is “good surprise.” A rainbow is a good surprise, as is a snowfall, or a visit from the ice cream man (maybe), and all these things are joyful. (Again, there are exceptions – a snowfall isn’t joyful if you have to get to work in treacherous conditions – but for many people, the sensory experience is an enormously positive trigger.)

Joy is so much more than just surprise, though. Things can be joyful without sneaking up on us. Another way our expectations can be subverted is by the sheer implausibility of them, the mystery of how they work. In this category are things that seem to controvert our expectations of how the world works, based on cultural mores, beliefs inculcated through life experience, and our obeisance to the laws of physics. Balloons and bubbles to me are joyful in this way. We know through our education how these things work, but we still feel a visceral wonder at their ability to exist. Rainbows and snow are also in this category, as are the Wii and the multitouch mechanism of the iPhone. These are expectations disrupted by magic, and interestingly we do not need to be surprised by them to be delighted by them. The Wii is still delightful on the 257th use, just as you can still be delighted by bubbles even if you are blowing them yourself and know when and where they will appear.

I also think there are expectations that are so subtle they can be disrupted in correspondingly subtle ways. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade strikes me as an unbelievably joyful spectacle (though I’ve had pushback on this from balloon- and crowd-haters – as with anything, there is always dissent). The sight of those giant balloons transforms the city into a toy city, and all the people on the streets into toy people. The insertion of a new element (cartoon balloons) creates a massive scale shift, causing us to see the city in a new way and disrupting our expectations of how it should look. These are expectations so basic we don’t even think about them, and when they are disrupted, we don’t even realize that they have been.

Not every joyful experience fits in here, though. I think there are also joyful sensory triggers – aromas, shapes, curves, and colors – that work in a different way on our psyche, and I’m still trying to reconcile these with this set of ideas around expectations.

Plutchik’s emotional taxonomy

10 February 2009

In researching joy and the basis of emotions, I found this model, developed by psychologist Robert Plutchik. As a designer I couldn’t resist the way he maps the emotions like a color wheel, and it’s also interesting how he’s developed the model in three dimensions.

But, I’m not sure I agree with where he’s placed joy. In preliminary discussions, it’s notable how often surprise emerges as a precursor to joy. My hypothesis is that that relationship will prove significant and this model does not reflect this.

Thesis: Aesthetics of Joy

10 February 2009

The major project I’ll be devoting this year to is my master’s thesis, exploring the subject Aesthetics of Joy.

Aesthetics of Joy lies at the foundation of an idea I want to advance called emotional sustainability, which is about cultivating more sustainable relationships between people and their objects through greater attention to the emotional quality of the design. Much has been said about designing for sustainability in recent years, but nearly all of it is functional. Yes, we need to design with less toxic materials, make lighter and less material-intensive products, and design for disassembly and recycling. But if we are to create a more sustainable world, we will need to address the issue of chronic overconsumption, and to do this, we as a culture will need to completely transform our emotional relationship with our stuff.

The current paradigm runs on high passions and an addictive, ecstatic rush at point of sale. This vein of emotions is not sustainable in human relationships and it’s not sustainable in human-object relationships either. Much of design feeds into this emotional roller coaster by playing within an aesthetics of consumerism which offers an intense but superficial pleasure and little in the way of a long-term relationship. So, we need to rethink the messages we are encoding in the way we design products and experiences.

Many emotions will play a role in restoring the emotional sustainability of objects. But I feel that joy is special in a way that is still somewhat ineffable to me. Perhaps there is a biological basis that I will discover in my research, but for now the one essential observation is that joy is a renewable emotion that lends itself to durability. Joy’s essential property is that the same object or experience can trigger joy over and over again. Swinging on a swingset, blowing bubbles, or putting one’s hand into a bowl of jellybeans can be a virtually inexhaustible reservoir of joy; like a sun for the psyche, it will never run out. This puts it in direct opposition to the thrilling nature of today’s consumption, which is based on novelty and intensity, and ultimately fizzles out.

Joy is a very particular thing. It is not happiness, which is too vague and encompassing a positive feeling. Nor is it contentment, with its snug, muted warmth. It is not euphoria, animating the spine with shimmering electricity, nor is it the zen-like feeling we call bliss. Joy inhabits that ineluctable space between wonder and pleasure, neighboring delight, but somehow more profound. Joy is momentary, but not temporary. Surprising, but not necessarily in a spectacular way. It is personal but at the same time universal, an essential emotion that renews and uplifts the human psyche.

It is these universals that I’m after in this project. I want to distill down the essence of joy, the basic aesthetic and intellectual principles that are capable of being experienced by everyone. Over the next 11 months, I’ll be doing fieldwork, concept tests, and interviews with experts that will hopefully clarify what these universals are, and I’ll post thoughts and ideas as I go.

Eye candy: LED lollipops

8 January 2009

Look at this! If this isn’t joy, I don’t know what is. From the NYT, this is the full story.