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.

The case for experiential learning

1 October 2008

My classroom-furniture-that-moves-with-kids project is as much about educational theory as it is about furniture. It all started with an article I read a few years ago about why boys are now underperforming girls in most levels of education, beginning at the elementary school level. One of the hypotheses posited by the author was the idea that boys are less inclined to sit for long periods of time at young ages, making it more difficult for them to learn in the way that our educational system requires.

But if you go to schools and watch kids, you realize, it’s not just boys who need to move. All kids need to move. And not just that, but kids do move. Despite best intentions of teachers and the most rigid and restrictive furniture designs, kids are moving all day long: swinging legs, rocking back on their chairs, squirming, dancing, fidgeting, and generally doing everything but being still.

When I mention to people that I’m working on a piece of furniture that lets kids move in the classroom, I hear the same response over and over again. “Wouldn’t teachers hate the idea of kids moving even more in the classroom? Won’t that be distracting?”

Contrary to common perception, I have a hypothesis that furniture that moves with the kid will actually be less distracting than the rigid setups currently available. I’ll go into more detail on this another time, but for now I want to consider this notion that it’s more conducive to learning to be in a classroom where the kids are all sitting still. Not mincing words here: this is a fallacy propagated by an outdated view of education. It’s not more conducive to learning for the kids to be still; it’s more conducive to teaching.

W.B. Yeats said “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” and I think this speaks directly to the problem at the heart of the way we approach education. We view kids as empty pails, and we design the learning environment to keep them still to make it easier for the teacher to pour knowledge into them. Just as it’s easier to fill a stationary bucket, it’s easier to teach kids who aren’t running all over the place.

But kids are not empty pails or blank slates. As educational consultant Jonathan Drori points out in the TED talk linked above, by the time kids reach school-age, they have tons of mental models formed from their experiences of the world. Through a set of deceptively simple questions that many adults answer wrongly (I stumbled over more than one), he illustrates the ways in which our educational system replaces these native, multidimensional mental models with ones that are far less effective.

“Kids understand gravity and magnetism far better before they start school than after a few years in the school system,” he points out. It’s experiential learning that drives this understanding, learning that involves the kid as a person, rather than as a vessel. As kids play and experiment and feel their way in the world, they discover truths with multiple senses at once, building deep and powerful connections in the brain. This method of learning is propelled by and reinforces kids’ natural curiosity, but is only a very small component of the teaching method employed in schools today.

Experiential learning and movement go hand in hand. A child who is free to move is free to physically explore the concepts he is learning, and a system that encourages experiential learning by definition would have children spending very little time parked in a chair. My project aspires to promote change from the bottom up – literally. By making the furniture about support and movement rather than restraint and control, I hope that design can demonstrate the benefits of rethinking the ways we learn and teach.