The aesthetics of monsters

14 April 2009

Extraordinary insight from a NY Times op-ed piece today on the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

Monster stories are a projection of our collective anxieties — and that may explain why in the current economic downturn, zombies are starting to catch up with the long-fashionable vampire. Vampires are sleek demons for good times. They suavely leach off society — like investment bankers who plunder outsize shares of deals for themselves or rapacious fund managers.

Zombies are more bluntly menacing. When they rise up, what results is a “zombie apocalypse,” or complete social breakdown. That image resonated in 1968, the chaotic year when “Night of the Living Dead,” the black-and-white zombie classic, was released. And it resonates today, when the banking system teeters on the brink of collapse and once-solid companies like Lehman Brothers are melting into air.

“Vampires are sleek demons for good times.” Yes, it does feel like we’ve no more blood left to drain, doesn’t it?

Library of Dust

9 February 2009

This extraordinary image is from photographer David Maisel’s latest project, Library of Dust, in which he photographed canisters containing the unclaimed ashes of patients who died at an Oregon mental institution over the course of nearly a century. This project is interesting to me in the way that the photos abstract the subject matter away from death and the accompanying emotions. On first look, the corrosion of the canisters is simply beautiful, and could be anything from a coral formation to a mineral deposit. Then the revelation of what they represent transforms the viewer’s experience of them into a deeply emotional one that is by turns empathic but also horrifying.

While with my thesis project, Aesthetics of Joy, I am looking at aesthetics as a support for the emotional experience, here the emotional experience is belied by the visceral one.

Aesthetics of Joy

12 October 2008

One of the ideas I’ve been ruminating over for my thesis is the question of the aesthetics associated with the emotion we call joy. What are the semiotics of objects and experiences that deliver this emotion of joy and how can we harness the knowledge of them to create products that are more joyful?

I was happy to stumble upon this TED talk by cognitive neuroscientist Al Seckel on designing joy. His talk mostly focuses on illusions and tromp l’oeil, but the more interesting aspect for me was his definition of a joyful experience as one in which “our expectations are violated in some pleasing way.” I think that’s a nice starting point for thinking about this topic. Where it gets tricky is in the field of product design, where we seek not to create a momentary illusion or temporary experience, but something that will deliver joy in a sustained way. There are too many one-liner products, jokes that are funny in the short-term but the appeal soon wears off. That kind of design is not compatible with my value system, unless the material that delivers the joke degrades as cleanly in the earth as it does in the mind.

I think an exploration into joy could offer a meaningful contribution to the field of design if it unearths principles that help us create products that deliver lasting joy – products that make us smile not just when we first encounter them, but every time we use them. To test the principles, one might design products whose sole function is to engender emotional wellbeing, like toys for adults where the premise isn’t about regression but about creating joyful moments in the user’s life, day after day.