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Sensory Aesthetics: Science Informs Aesthetics

Moin Rahman Ira Jhangiani

Motorola Motorola
Plantation, FL 33322, USA Plantation, FL 33322, USA

ABSTRACT under the title The Two Cultures [1] and is still palpable to
Any modern, functional artifact – the car, cellphone, this day.
camera, etc. – can be viewed as a microcomputer-driven
machine embodied in multiple mediums to facilitate One may argue that the notions of artistic and scientific
human-machine interaction. They not only have to deliver creativity are convenient social constructions that channel
a function(s) but should also fulfill the affective and the emotional and rational pursuits of humanity. For
aesthetic needs of the user through the many mediums instance, it is an accepted fact that architecture informs the
(physical, virtual, aural, etc.) in which they are manifested. aesthetics of a building whereas engineering provides its
A construct called ‘sensory aesthetics’ has been conceived structural solutions. However, this rigid bifurcation is being
to investigate the processing of aesthetic information blurred of late by new and novel emerging architectural
contained in a functional artifact by its user. At an practices such as Informal [2]. For example, one of the
operational level, it postulates that the aesthetic information motifs of the Informal school is to expose and accentuate
is filtered through a set of six concatenated, overlapping how the [load-bearing] structure counters and routes the
filters (deep structures, culture, ecology, behaviors, forces of gravity – and, in the process, engenders an
affordance and epoch). The filtering approach is rooted in aesthetic appreciation around the structure itself in the mind
the social and psychological sciences due to the fact that of the perceiver.
culture, context and cognitions are the primary drivers
Machine as Art
through which a group’s – and by extension an individual’s
– aesthetic sense and needs are shaped. In the practice The industrialization of art is a fairly recent phenomenon
standpoint, information gleaned through the sensory that came to fore at the dawn of the industrial revolution.
This “new art” of “industrial design” came as a response to
aesthetics approach can be used to make informed decisions
and shape the aesthetics of a product and its interface for a the rise of machine-made mass products [3] in order to
given context and users. Finally, the sensory aesthetics increase their appeal by going beyond the essential
requirements such as functionality and usability. In other
approach demonstrates that science and art can partner in
constructive ways in the product design process. words, a machine or tool had to artistically express itself
through its character and composition to fulfill the
Author Keywords
emotional needs of the user. Furthermore, from the
Sensory aesthetics, art, industrial, product & interface semiotic point of view, it had to not only denote function
design, culture, emotion, cognition. but also had to connote symbolic value [4] such as class,
status, wealth, austerity, power, etc. The value proposition
INTRODUCTION in the manufacturer’s standpoint was straightforward: to
Art and science – and, by extension, artists and scientists – make the product saleable it had to be made palatable to the
are traditionally viewed as tenuously connected (if at all) human senses. In recent years this has been studied under
human endeavors. The alienation of these two types is often the rubric of the ‘power of positive affect’ – the perception
stereotypically romanticized as the former living and that “attractive things work better” and the role of
practicing art in a commune of bohemians; and, the latter, “pleasure” in human-product interaction [5, 6].
donning white coats while assiduously laboring in a lab
with beakers and gauges. And artists purportedly thrive in Humans and their Arts
creativity that is fueled by chaos whereas scientists Humans are said to have an innate predisposition and
supposedly survive on empirical rigor and worship proclivity to create and consume art. Ethologists point out
analytical thought. As the scientific revolution blossomed, that art, as a trait has been selected by evolution, as it
the fissure between the sciences and art deepened. It was provides “enabling mechanisms for the performance of
lamented that calculation and measurement displaced the selectively valuable behaviors such as appropriating the
cultivation and passion engendered by the arts [1]. The material needs of life” (food, tools, shelter, etc.) [7]. For
tensions between the two domains where first presented in a instance, it is conjectured that prehistoric man – in a
landmark lecture (The Rede lecture, 1959) by C.P. Snow dangerous, unknown, unsure and unpredictable world –
made sure that his technology (spear, pottery, etc.) worked

by deliberately reinforcing it with emotionally satisfying RECONNECTIONS
special [artistic] elaborations and shaping. In this paper, we explore means by which the professional
designer can be reconnected to the end user, particularly in
Cultural anthropologists point out that art was integral to the realm of aesthetics. The intent here is to focus on the
ritual whose purpose was to inculcate group identity, abstract qualities of a product in the sensorial point of view
cooperation, cohesiveness and cooperation. Furthermore, by and not on its tangible issues such as features, function or
imposing culture on nature they sought to control nature. In usability. As a matter of fact, the latter has an established
earlier times art and ritual were interwoven and were tradition in industry where methods such as contextual
considered a “divine and mysterious visitation.” This inquiry, usability testing, etc., are used to inform the
approach was made necessary for the group to protect itself tangibles in product design and development. However,
from disease, vagaries of nature, and the dangers associated our literature review has shown no formal theory, practice
with acquisition of food (hunting). or tradition exists to systematically inform the aesthetics of
a product or its interface. We hope to fill this gap – at least,
Functional Art
begin a line of inquiry – on a theoretical basis based on the
In the preceding section we showed that functional art – the research we have done in the social, psychological and
art incorporated into prehistoric technology (weapons,
human factors sciences.
tools, etc.) – is almost as old as our species (homo sapiens).
And it should be emphasized that we distinguish functional To get started, we would like to begin with fundamentals,
art – the art of technology, machines, etc. – from the by defining aesthetics.
representational (art, sculpture, etc.) and performance arts
(drama, music, poetry, etc.). AESTHETICS
The ancient Greeks used the term “aesthetic” to refer to
Industrialized Art sensation and feelings – good or bad, beautiful or ugly [8].
The industrialized art of today is a natural and logical However, modern usage has somewhat corrupted the
extension of the functional art that began in prehistoric original connotation and now it is used as a synonym for
times. Obviously, there is one crucial difference: In earlier “beautiful.”
times, the consumer was his own designer & artist
Our objective is to use the word aesthetic in its original
(designer-artist-consumer); or, as civilization advanced,
sense. And to emphasis the original meaning and contrast it
they were at least in close proximity (e.g., the consumer
from modern day usage we have coined the term “sensory
directly interacted with the craftsperson, and thus,
aesthetic.” That is, the sensory feelings (good or bad)
influenced the style, form and functional aspects of the
evoked by the aesthetics (beautiful or ugly) of a product or
product). However, these earlier models have been
supplanted with the industrialization of technology, chiefly
characterized by mass production and an increased Next, we describe and define sensory aesthetics from what
complexity of the technology itself. This has divorced the is known from the affective and psychological sciences.
consumer from his designer-artist self and has distanced the
professional designer-artist from the ultimate end-user. Sensory Aesthetics
The common notion of product aesthetics typically links it
Although we use the term “industrialized art” it is not with the visual medium through form, color, patterns, visual
restricted to the machines of the industrial age. It also syntax, etc. This is understandable given product design’s
includes microcomputer based machines such as roots in the visual arts. However, many artifacts stimulate
appliances, tools and toys – and their virtual interfaces. one or more senses – tactile, olfactory, auditory and visual –
The ‘divorce’ and ‘distancing’ of designer from consumer as part of their function (e.g., ring tone on a cellphone) or
is ameliorated by providing a limited ability to customize a do it as an incidental byproduct of their function (e.g., the
product or its interface through skins and themes. However, crackle of a rifle shot and the odor of gunpowder, which
this is not true with all products, and even when provided follows that; or in the case of a sports car, the sounds
they are mostly superficial and don’t provide the structural produced by its internal combustion engine, the input it
latitude to reconfigure the aesthetics at a deeper level. provides to the equilibrioception [sense of linear
acceleration] of the driver). We consider these unimodal or
Finally, a word on terminology. For the sake of multimodal stimulations (visual and non-visual) crucial
consistency, we will use the term “product design” to refer because it is known that the body with its total sensing
to all functional artifacts that are used to accomplish a apparatus assesses the environmental conditions in multiple
particular goal such as transport, communicate, entertain, modalities on a cathectic basis; that is, intuitive, emotional,
cook, etc. And, as one might expect, almost all of these uninformed judgment, feel good or feel bad, adumbration,
modern day, functional artifacts are either driven or making benefit or loss assessments, adjusting and
managed (or both) by microcomputers. readjusting [9].
Formally, we define sensory aesthetics as a first order
orientation response that is automatic, fast, instinctive,
nonconscious, and effortless to the aesthetics of the stimuli
leading to an instant and implicit conclusion on its aesthetic
valence. In the sensory standpoint, it is analogous to the
concept of direct perception [10], in the physical
environment, where an organism gleans meaning inherent
in its environment without any explicit mental calculation.
In the social domain (human-human interaction), its akin to
‘thin slicing’ [11] – i.e., reliably gleaning information
through “instantaneous impressions” about a person’s
identity, disposition and intent, with a brief exposure. In
other words, valid conclusions can be drawn from fleeting
impressions and minimal information (thin slices) without Sensory Aesthetic Cogitated Aesthetic
requiring a vast cornucopia of information (large slice) or
rigorous analysis. Bulk of the processing Bulk of the processing
occurs at the visceral level, occurs at the reflective
Likewise, we argue that the aesthetics of a product can be (denoted by the width of the level, (denoted by the width
reliably sensed through thin slicing and it neither requires left bar.) of the right bar.)
inferential reasoning nor is it necessary that it be mediated
by language. The concept of sensory aesthetics can be best Figure 1. Sensory vs. Cogitated Aesthetic: viewed under the
appreciated in the words of Le Corbusier [12] who made his rubric of Don Norman’s three-level [user] processing of
observations concerning the empathetic ideals of design.
architecture (here we treat the building as a product serving In design theory, Norman’s design framework has been
a certain function): “…the disposition of elements in a interpreted as having three rigid levels [14], which, in turn,
building should be such a way that the sight of them affects evoke three very different cognitive reactions: (1) aesthetic
us immediately by their delicacy or their brutality, their riot impression (visceral level cognition:
or their serenity, their indifference or their interest.” At a attractive\unattractive); (2) semantic interpretation
subjective level, it can be said that the sensory aesthetic (behavioral level cognition: functional\use); and (3)
experience engenders an “esthetic emotion” [13], which is symbolic association (reflective level cognition:
said to arise before any experience or knowledge of the personal/social significance). However, our definition of
object can be accumulated. sensory aesthetic – informed by the fact that affect precedes
cognition, i.e., “preferences need no inferences” [15] – does
In a human information processing standpoint, the sensory not adhere to the rigid, three level model. Because we
aesthetic experience should be viewed as a gradually hypothesize that the user can non-consciously sense the
changing continuum, with the bulk of the processing affective component present at all three levels (visceral,
occurring at the visceral level (which is automatic, fast, behavioral and reflective) at once, to varying [diminishing]
parallel and affective processing) and diminishing as one degrees without requiring deliberate cognition. For
ascends to the higher cortical centers (where slow, example, a certain watch can be perceived as having ‘high’
deliberate, serial and rational cognition occurs) of the brain. status merely on first impressions because it simply ‘feels’
The opposite of sensory aesthetic is the cogitated aesthetic elegant and sophisticated. This precludes any formal
where the affective reaction of a product’s aesthetics is cognition such as deliberate analysis of material, finish or
generated through deliberate analysis (intellectualization [discretionary] branding information [8].
and rationalization). Some examples of the cogitated
aesthetic would be as follows: (1) a consumer marveling DISCOVERING THE SENSORY AESTHETIC
and reflecting the conncinity, symmetry, craftsmanship or The idea of universal design – as applied to form (not to be
finish in a product’s form factor (e.g., sports car); or the confused with design for people with disabilities) – has
user recalling the elegance with which an interface received its fair share of criticism [16]. This is because
presented information and guided him towards successfully universal design seeks a language of product form
accomplishing his goal (e.g., online ticket reservation compatible with any technology, for any culture at any
system). We will not discuss the cogitated aesthetic further time. The aesthetic here is valorized and commoditized
as it is beyond the scope of this paper. because of its enforced uniformity, which neither takes into
account individual tastes nor cultural norms of a people.
We have adapted Don Norman’s three-level processing Furthermore, the intense competition prevailing in the
model [5] to visually describe and contrast the sensory and marketplace, results in asymmetric attention [rightfully so]
cogitated aesthetics, respectively (Figure 1). being paid, to non-aesthetic attributes of a product, such as
functionality, features, usability, price, etc., at the cost of
aesthetics. Simply because aesthetics even if perceived as

valuable is considered highly subjective and ethereal and We postulate the existence of at least six major filters
not robust enough to guarantee a return on investment. through which a user senses and perceives the sensory
aesthetic of a product. Below we present these six filters
In a fast paced industrial setting, there is insufficient time to
and their underlying rationale.
pay enough thought to discovering the ideal aesthetic for a
product; universal design often times becomes the recourse. Deep Structures: products exist to fulfill certain needs (e.g.,
Moreover, a formal process – using either the social or transportation, communication, security, etc.) and to satiate
psychological sciences – is not readily available to quickly emotional needs (e.g., display status, intrinsic pleasure,
and efficiently inform the development of the aesthetic of a etc.). The ‘needs’ are really the tip of the iceberg as they
product besides a few exceptions, with limited scope (e.g., reside on deeply-rooted desires (e.g., Maslow’s hierarchy of
Kansei [17]). needs) that are driven by intrinsic (derived from play,
feelings of belonging, balance and coherence) and extrinsic
In the rest of the paper, we present a systematic process –
motivations (anticipation of goal accomplishment). They
informed by the social and psychological sciences – to
are met with the surface level artifacts such as a car (for
discover the elements that are crucial to shape the sensory
transportation), cellphone (communication), weapon
aesthetic of particular products that are designed to be used
(security), etc. The ability\inability of a product to convey
in a given context and operating environment by a specific
its fitness to fulfill the deep structures will influence if the
group of users. Furthermore, this process highlights the
aesthetics is either perceived positively or negatively. For
nexus between science and art: that is, the utilization of the
example, a consumer who puts safety as a top issue when
rational and empirical methods of science to inform the
shopping for an automobile will accord a higher aesthetic
emotional and empathy evoking qualities of an artifact
valence to a model whose mass, form, plan, proportion,
through its aesthetics.
among other elements, aesthetically conveys attributes such
as strength, sturdiness and protection.
The concept of aesthetics in product design can be studied Ecology: A product has to be harmonious in the ecology in
through at least two avenues: which it is used. The ecology is shaped by the
geographical, physical, demographic, organizational and
1) The ‘artistic universals’ approach that are
semiotic setting. If a product’s aesthetic is out of place with
prerequisites to evoke a positive valence in the
its ecology it will be perceived negatively. For example, a
minds of the perceivers regardless of their culture,
colorful, snazzy, highly dynamic interface commonly seen
ecology, etc. This approach usually involves in
on gaming devices for teenagers may not be appropriate as
determining attributes that are required to evoke a
a theme on a human-machine interface used on a
positive valence in terms of mass, surface and plan
commercial aircraft.
[13], form, proportion, arrangement, conncinity,
novelty, etc. [8], Gestalt psychology [11], and Behaviors: The rituals and rhythms of living, working and
neuroaesthetics [18]. playing are governed by master routines known as
fundamental or prosematic [19] behaviors, which are
2) The fitness of the aesthetic for a specific set of
governed by the ‘primitive’ emotional centers in the brain.
users in terms of their culture, context and purpose
As these behaviors are adaptive (selected by evolution) they
(high level goals) – by viewing them as
are of high value to an organism. If a product’s look and
particularized instances or localizations.
feel is perceived as supportive, or amplifying the
We focus on the question of aesthetic fitness because not prosematic behavior(s) governing a particular activity, it
much information exists in this area and because of its will be much preferred over another product that may lack
significance, on aesthetic grounds, in terms of determining these qualities. For instance, a gaming device and its
a product’s success or failure. In the rest of this paper, we interface, should emphasis fun and playfulness through its
explore the role of cultural, social, contextual, temporal form, color, animations, etc., so that it supports the
factors, among others, in shaping a group’s aesthetic psychological derivatives (fun, excitement, flow) of the
appetite and how it could inform the design of a product, prosematic behavior centered around play.
which can be used to inform the design so that it will
Culture: The culture governing a human collective (e.g.,
increase the aesthetic fitness of a product so that it feels
nationality, firefighters, urban teens, etc.) shapes their
natural, right, and positive [valence] to its users.
beliefs, preferences and predispositions. A product’s
aesthetic should be harmonious with a group’s culture to be
Aesthetics of a product neither emerges ex nihilo nor does it accepted and appreciated. For instance, a ‘contractor-
exist in the absence of a human perceiver. The perceiver grade’ power tool that has too much of aesthetic detail
filters the [sensory] aesthetics of a product through his (relief, lines and colors), may not win the approval of a
culture, knowledge, experiences, historical epoch – group of workers belonging to the construction industry.
including the repertoire of proximal behaviors he expects to Affordances: The intuitive grasp or potential for action
perform with the product to fulfill an ultimate need. should be palpable in a product. The information
concerning the purpose and operation of product should be A Deeper Look at Select Filters
presented in a lucid, intuitive and inviting manner because Given the space constraints, we have chosen to illustrate
the resulting affordance has the potential to enhance the three of the six filters – ecology, culture and behavior – in
aesthetic appeal of the product. For example, if a very greater detail. Given our experience with designing
beautiful looking DVD player does not immediately convey wireless communication solutions for mission critical
operational details (how to load a disc and play) through its domains, such as law enforcement, we have picked that
interface because it provides either hidden or false domain for our illustrations.
affordance [20], then, its aesthetic appeal will be
diminished. Ecology
A product has to live and thrive in the ecology that is native
Epoch: The epoch is the ‘zeitgeist’ [8] of an age. It is the to its users. The elements of ecology in the context of
‘spirit of the times,’ which is manifested due to political or product design are presented in the Table below.
social revolutions or evolutions, popular sentiments and
technological breakthroughs. It may also be shaped by trend Elements of Ecology Features (examples)
setters, taste makers, reviewers, social commentators and Geographical\Physical terrain, climate, altitude, etc.
culture critics present in a society. Every epoch has its own
styles, fashions and fads (e.g., classical, Roman, Byzantine, Demographic socioeconomic strata, age
Renaissance, Modern, etc.). A product’s aesthetics needs to group, gender, etc.
be synchronous with its epoch if it has to appeal to its
Operational modes mobile vs. fixed; night vs. day;
audience. For example, the first modern airliner, the
covert vs. overt; personal vs.
Douglas DC-3, was the most influential icon of the 1930s.
The airplane’s aerodynamic form influenced the design of
other products such as cars, locomotives – and even radios Organizational codes public vs. private sector; single
and refrigerators – as they sported smooth, curving and vs. multi user; emergency vs.
“streamlined” surfaces [8]. regular; mission critical vs.
To reiterate our earlier point of sensory aesthetics, we argue non critical.
that a consumer will be able to thin slice the aesthetic Interactions slow vs. fast; economical vs.
information of a product through these six filters, and deliberative; utilitarian vs.
instantly conclude – based on the valence, the aesthetic pleasure deriving
emotion it engenders – whether it is boring, exciting,
beautiful or ugly. We view these six, lens-like filters as a Semiotics design and aesthetics of pre-
concatenated set, with some overlaps, that affectively color existing artifacts, symbology,
the perception of a product’s aesthetics as it is resolved jargon, clothing, cuisine, etc.
(brought into focus) in the mind of the perceiver (Figure 2).
Table 1. Elements of ecology
It is possible that a product and the setting or context in
which its sensory aesthetic is perceived may alter the order, Next we discuss the implications of ecology in the context
size and influence of these filters. For instance, in the case of law enforcement for a high altitude railway system
of a modern artifact such as a cellphone, affordance may (railway link connecting Golmud, China to Lhasa, Tibet).
move-up the hierarchy of filters – as there is an intrinsic In Table 2, we have picked two ecological elements and
psychological need to immediately perceive on how to use expanded on them for this particular case. And Figure 3
it and actually use\interact with it. Whereas, say, in the case provides a visual glimpse of the geographical\physical
of apparel culture and epoch will probably trump other ecological element.
filters in order and importance when a subject perceives the
sensory aesthetic.
Elements of Ecology Features Aesthetic
(examples) Implications
Geographical\Physical Snowcapped Physically
mountains, demanding,
high altitude cognitive
(16,000 ft.), impoverishment
low oxygen (low oxygen),
(30% - 40% physiologically
of sea level), taxing,
Figure 2. Perceiving the sensory aesthetic through six cold, dangerous, high
filters permafrost risk, scenic and

beautiful imprimatur that conveys officialdom, government and
Semiotics Tibetan’s Conflicting
love for color aesthetics Culture
and (Tibetan vs. The social psychologist, Geert Hofstede, using the
resplendence Communist). metaphor of computer software, succinctly defined culture
vs. the as the “collective programming of the mind which
official distinguishes the members of one group or category of
Chinese people from another”[21]. Hofstede identified three
[communist] elements (symbols, values and rituals) and five independent
aesthetic that dimensions of culture (power distance, uncertainty
is stark, dour avoidance, individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs.
and plain. feminity and long-term vs. short-term orientation).

Table 2. Elements of ecology and their aesthetic implications A social group develops its own aesthetic expectations
derived from its culture [elements and dimensions]. The
cultural-aesthetic axis of a certain group is modulated based
on where it lies (high\low) on the dimensions of culture [6]
as shown in Table 3.
Due to space constraints, we have chosen to illustrate one
element (symbols) and one power dimension (masculinity
vs. feminity) of culture in the law enforcement context.
Symbols are words, meanings, gestures and objects that
carry often complex meanings recognized within that
culture. Symbols are used to acquire and transmit patterned
ways of thinking, feeling and reacting by a social group
with the intent of providing group identity and herald its
achievements. Law enforcement, as a culture, is rich with
symbols that are used to send both explicit and implicit
messages to within and without. A flavor/idea of this
symbology can be seen from the uniforms (Figure 4),
artifacts (ornamental and\or functional), including the
architecture of their buildings, design and styling of
transport vehicles, design of workspaces, among other
things. In this regard, symbology does share some common
traits with semiotics discussed in the preceding section.
Figure 3. Perceiving the sensory aesthetic through six filters Institutions, such as police departments, strive to create a
Now let’s focus on the physical and semiotic aspects of the shared framework of mental models amongst its members.
sensory aesthetics of the police radio that has to operate in Sociologists consider this shared mental model as an
this ecology. Given the information in Table 2 and Figure ‘ideology’ [of an institution] that helps its members to
3, it is logical to conclude that the sensory aesthetic should interpret the environment and develop prescriptions on how
embody a rugged and tough look, which unequivocally the environment should be structured.
conveys that the radio can operate at low temperatures and Cultural High Low
withstand extreme weather elements (sleet, snow, rain, Dimension
Power distance High status Youthfulness
These sensory aesthetic qualities when designed into the (degree to which
product will enhance appeal and make it more convincing. the unequal
In other words, if a product has a sensory aesthetic distribution of
incongruent to its ecology, and even if it meets performance power is expected
specifications, the product may be perceived as unfit for the and accepted.)
ecology in which it has to operate.
Individuality Expressiveness Familiarity
In the semiotic standpoint the product has to resolve the (being self
conflicting aesthetics of the two ethnicities (Tibetan and sufficient as
Chinese) it tries to bridge. Furthermore, it needs to have an opposed to being
well integrated in
the group’s social a. The sensory aesthetic should be in harmony with the
fabric.) symbology (Figure 4) – color, styling, etc. – used by a
particular police department
Toughness – Performance Artistry b. The sensory aesthetic needs to communicate ‘symbolic
a.k.a., value’ of a product. For example, the sensory aesthetic
masculinity\femi- of a police radio should express itself as a reliable
nity (tough vs. connectivity tool with the rest of the force; and it
tender qualities.) should express to the citizens that additional help could
Uncertainty Reliability Novelty be summoned at a moment’s notice. The latter may
avoidance (extent dictate design issues such as where it is worn on one’s
to which people person [prominently displaying it to the citizens], quick
feel threatened by accessibility, etc.)
ambiguity.) c. The sensory aesthetic (physical, auditory, visual, etc.)
may have to be shaped by symbolic codes that might
Long-term Timelessness Fashionableness be routine or peculiar to the law enforcement group.
orientation (extent An example of this would be the 10-codes (verbal,
to which people numeric codes used for common phrases – e.g., “10-
are future 32” stands for “man with gun” – intrinsic to police
oriented.) communication) used by police departments in the U.S.
This may require a sensory aesthetic – e.g., auditory
Table 3. Cultural-aesthetic axis: How the dimensions of and\or visual modes – that facilitates the enunciation
culture (high\low) modulate a group’s aesthetic preferences and sharp acoustic delivery of numerals (e.g., 10-0,
[6]. 10-1, 10-2, etc.)

The masculinity vs. feminity power dimension refers to the

distribution of emotional roles between the genders in that
it contrasts tough masculine against tender feminine
qualities. The masculinity-feminity dimension should be
seen as a social construct that transcends gender because of
the fact that social groups tend to perceive
masculinity\feminity even in inanimate objects.
Although law enforcement is stereotyped as hyper
masculine, it may not be the case with every law
enforcement department. For instance, ethnographic
research done by our colleagues had revealed an interesting
contrast between the London metro and the Korean police
departments. Based on the history, political and cultural
Figure 4. A sample of police symbology (uniforms, artifacts, systems prevailing in each one of their countries, the former
etc.) from around the world. (A) Tibet; (B) India; (C) prefer to portray themselves as a friendlier, softer, caring
Philippines; (D) Iran; (C) Delaware, USA. and not-so-masculine group to the citizenry for the most
The uniform, as a symbol, is thus used not only to part – i.e., unless they are threatened. The latter [Korea]
distinguish the police officers from the rest of society (in- show a preference to portray themselves as tough, assertive
group vs. out-group), but also to help them develop a shared and very masculine. These two very different mindsets
mental model so that they can function as a cohesive unit. were then articulated in the sensory aesthetic [form factor]
of the radios – same radio with different form factors --
The above discussion demonstrated the significance of designed for them. This was verified in the form factor
symbology in law enforcement. Thus a product used in this testing phase and the final preferences are shown in Figure
environment is rife with meaning in the symbolic 5.
standpoint. Thus the sensory aesthetic of a law
enforcement product should deliver the symbolism that
would be expected of it by its users. Some select examples
of how this could be accomplished are listed below. (as
noted earlier, the filters may overlap depending on the
product and context; and in this example the reader may
notice an overlap between culture and ecology.)

behaviors intrinsic to it. This will require the product to
display through its form, sounds, etc., character attributes
such as “bold,” “assertive,” and “strong”; and
compositional attributes such as “dependable,”
“trustworthy” and “incorruptible.” Some of these traits may
have endogenous value in that they serve to prime, prepare
London Metro: Less Korean Police: Tough, and promote assertive behaviors in the officer. In the case
masculine, friendly and assertive and highly of a 2-way radio, besides its form and color, the aforesaid
caring: a softer & rounded masculine: angular & edgy traits may be facilitated through sound (radio chirps and
form factor form factor tonal feedbacks), virtual interface (bold and simple layout,
type of font, crisp screen transitions, etc.) to mention a few.
Figure 5. Sensory aesthetic based on an organization’s cultural Likewise, a law enforcement product (e.g., radio) has an
mindset. exogenous dimension in that it needs to convey through its
As indicated above, determining a group’s cultural sensory aesthetic – particularly form and finish – to the
dimensions can provide insights on the kind of sensory community at large that the officer is equipped with tools
aesthetics that might be desirable and acceptable. that are dependable and high quality. This, in turn, will not
only enhance the image of the officer, but will also serve to
Behavior amplify the value of his or her ‘behaviors’ – and by
One of the major activities of law enforcement is to deter extension the police department he belongs to – in the eyes
crime merely through “presence patrols.” In a prosematic of the community that seeks its protection.
behaviors (described earlier) standpoint, because it
concerns territorial protection and defense, it involves the CLOSING THOUGHTS
execution of what are known as “signature displays” and Our research has indicated there is no established tradition
“challenge displays” [19]. The former are a form of to develop the aesthetic of a product’s physical and\or
asserting power visually and verbally, and the latter may virtual elements. In most cases, a set of functional
involve dynamic posturing. requirements that a product needs to fulfill are identified
based on generative design research or contextual inquiry.
During this research, some cultural issues (e.g.,
appropriate\inappropriate colors, shape or symbols) may be
accidentally discovered, but this may not necessarily inform
or shape the aesthetics of a product. Based on this
information (functional and sometimes cultural), the
industrial and\or the interaction designer is given a set of
specifications to work with and the designer intuits his way
towards a particular aesthetic based on his hunches,
predispositions and preferences. On most occasions, this is
driven by the designer’s tastes and cultural background,
fads of the moment or ephemeral trends native to the
designer’s ecology. Unfortunately, this ad hoc approach
doesn’t reliably deliver the desired aesthetic results.
Reaping success through such an ad hoc approach is
predicated on luck, exceptional imagination and artistic
Figure 6. Signature & challenge displays of law enforcement ingenuity of the designer and large number of trials and
errors and iterative testing
As seen in the figure above, the [organic form] of the
The sensory aesthetic approach, on the other hand, lays out
signature display consists of a sufficiently tensed
a systematic process to uncover the aesthetic desires of a
musculature (e.g., chest-up) resulting in assertive posture
specific target audience. As discussed earlier, it filters out
and vigilant facial expression. It is also expressed through
the [desired-ideal] aesthetic by trying to understand the
its non-organic forms such as a sharp & snappy uniform
consumers’ deep structures, ecology, culture, affordance
(contrast this with the civilians in the background) and law-
needs and epoch in a particular product-user interaction
enforcement related equipment (on the belt), cap\beret, and
context. Obviously, we do not claim that this is an
insignia. Challenge display is expressed through the gait
exhaustive and comprehensive approach to inform the
and authoritative pacing, display and swinging of the baton,
development of a product’s aesthetic. However, it is our
sound of shoes hitting the pavement, etc.
belief that it provides a framework and lays out a pathway
to get to the [aesthetic] destination in an informed manner.
The above discussion demonstrates that the sensory
aesthetic of a law enforcement product should bolster the
The sensory aesthetic approach may not only increase the 6. Jordan, P.W. Designing Pleasurable Products. Taylor &
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS technology. In Proc. Product Semantics 1989 Conference,
We thank Mark Palmer (Senior Manager, Motorola) for Publications of the Univeristy of Industrial Arts, Helsinki,
giving us the scientific license to explore the nexus between Finland, 1990.
the arts and the sciences in the context of product design. 17. Nagamachi, M. Kansei engineering as a powerful consumer-
Scott Richards for providing us the example concerning the oriented technology for product development. Applied
police radio design variations (London Metro and Korean Ergonomics, 33, (2002), 289-294.
Police). And, Shantel Biangel, for the ‘six filters’ graphic 18. Ramachandran, V.S. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness:
that helped us visually articulate the sensory aesthetic From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers. PI Press, New
framework. York, NY, 2004.
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