Design by Touch | Popular Woodworking Magazine

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Like butter. The curves of this wooden butter spatula are a delight to the eye but also better to the touch.

While the design is dominated by the eye, the hand plays an important role.

MMuch of what I’ve written about design has focused on how we look at it. However, good design often has multiple layers that speak to all of our senses. We tend to think of the visual sense as the dominant player, but our sense of touch can also help us take our designs to another level.

Our ability to see with our fingers is remarkable. We can put our hand in our pockets and understand the difference between a penny and a penny. We can run our hands on a freshly planed board, perceiving the smallest trace of the plane invisible to our eyes. When we say we work with our hands, it is more than wielding a chisel or a sledgehammer. Our hands are a portal to how we interact with tools and work.

Much of what we do on the bench depends on what our hands tell us. It is almost impossible to imagine working without a sense of touch. But this goes beyond swiping your fingertips over a joint to feel if the parts are flush and taut. We constantly make aesthetic judgments with our hands, which are always looking for connections. Our sense of touch is always active, just like our nose that perceives the smell of something that brings a smile, a frown or an empty indifference.

Bravo Skipper

From a distance. Much of our visual interpretation of a design comes from across the room and how it fits into the neighborhood, like with this dresser in its period setting.

I remember when I was a boy I looked for good skipper stones in the rocks on a pebble beach that I could throw over the water. Often, while collecting sand and stones, I would come across one with a strange shape that felt right in my hand. I would roll it around my fingers and, without thinking, it would become a keeper and fit in my pocket instead of at the bottom of the lake – much to my mother’s chagrin, when she later found it rattling in the washing machine.

We make judgments about our environment through all our senses, each of which provides us with a piece of the picture of reality before us. And three of them (sight, sound and smell) are feedback mechanisms that we use at a distance.

We make visual judgments on a chest of drawers or a table across the room. Often our impressions concern the way in which the object relates to the space in which it is located. We find that our visual judgment is often influenced by sunlight flowing through a nearby window and the way surfaces reflect that light. The feedback we get from a distance tells us how the object relates to its surroundings. Furniture has always been strongly linked to architecture: the way in which it relates to the surrounding environment is linked to this.

Up close and physical

Our sense of touch is a different animal. It’s always a close encounter. It differs from visual judgments because we are not comparing how the piece interacts with its surroundings, we are responding to how the piece interacts with our bodies. We are receiving some complex and sophisticated signals through the nerves in our fingers, which often strike a chord within us that is difficult to explain. Why does a wooden handle look friendlier to our grip than an injection molded plastic handle? The latter feels empty and dead.

From the very first moments our fingers help us to understand and relate to our world. It’s a subjective thing, but like our sense of hearing there are some universals we connect with. With hearing we can have a wide range of preferences, but universally we tend to connect more with a songbird than with the sound of a dentist’s drill or jackhammer. With our sense of touch we also have a wide range of shapes and textures that we connect with – and we typically connect more to curves than to sharp corners and jagged edges.

forms

The roaring mouse. The small details carved on this chair arm speak louder than their size suggests.

Designers have long recognized this powerful connection, and despite our advances in technology, it’s still a force to be reckoned with. I once spoke to a Kodak engineer who has spent decades working on portable camera designs. He joked that the main goal was always to design a camera shape that looked like a bar of soap.

Think about it. See many of the small technical objects designed to interact with your hands, such as the mouse you use with your computer. It’s just a plastic bar of soap. That shape is telling us something just like a smooth stone that went into a child’s pocket. We deeply respond to curved surfaces that our hands can explore and connect with. Whether it’s the arch on the back of an old wooden spoon or the delicate curved end on the arm of a chair, our hands send us messages that make us smile inside.

I know that when I take a bowl and feel the curves inside the jar, if the curve looks like something I picked up by hand, a little music goes out in my head and I find that I connect with it. The same goes for curves on the outer surface. Sometimes the shape of a bowl or a rotated vase seems to hug my hands, not the other way around. I try to forget what my head says and listen to what my hands tell me.

See with your hands

The handle challenge. In a blind test, who would our hand vote for: the carved wooden handle on this antique wooden top or the plastic bag on this modern hand tool (below)?

If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you know that I always challenge you to open your eyes to see deeply. Whether it’s a sketchbook or a camera, or exploring with a couple of dividers, I always encourage you with methods of getting new information.

Here’s another way to broaden your horizon. Use your sense of touch to deliberately train your inner eye. Don’t be embarrassed to close your eyes and use your hands to make mental notes on the shape of a pulled drawer or the edge of the back of a chair. Use your fingers to compare. Take note of transitions that look delightful versus those that look mechanical and dead.

The right curve. Are my hands holding this square bowl or are the curves of this bowl hugging my hands?

You probably already do this without thinking, but try to slow down and do it deliberately, paying attention to what your hands are telling you. Just make sure the drawer pull doesn’t end up in your trouser pocket, banging in the washing machine.


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