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Perfect everyday objects

Merel Bekking
Using raw brain data to try to unlock the mysteries of taste

The idea for Brain Manufacturing was conceived, like many other ideas, in a bar.

It was my graduation year, and I was anxious about my future as a designer – but at the same time I was feeling optimistic, like I could conquer the world. So after a few beers and plenty of discussion around the table, I decided I wanted to experiment with the rather meaty and complex idea of perfection.

Mind over mouth

The term perfect implies some kind of universal, absolute goal – but our visual preferences are deeply subjective; we all have different tastes and varying personal biases.

Be that as it may, I wondered if it might be possible to go beyond what we say we like, to what our brains find visually appealing on an unconscious level. Could there be a level of aesthetic preference hidden beneath our conscious tastes?

The next morning, unlike so many other drunken ideas, this one felt like it could actually go somewhere. I decided to explore the tastes of a group of non-designers. I didn’t want to ask them what they liked – I wanted to look into their brains.

Products of perfection

I collaborated with The Spinoza Centre for NeuroImaging in Amsterdam, a neuroscientific research centre, and Dr Steven Scholte, neuroscientist and visual preference expert. I wanted to know how the group responded on a neurological level when it came to three important design choices: shape, colour and material.

We placed 20 individuals in fMRI scanners and measured their brain activity. The results were interesting: we found that their brains reacted positively to qualities which the participants themselves did not report. The group consciously told us that they preferred the colour blue, the material wood, and open, round shapes, but the fMRI scanners showed that red, plastic, and closed, organic shapes provoked positive responses in their brains.

I used these three ingredients to develop a series of red, plastic, and organic-shaped products: mirrors, tables, plant pots, bowls and vases, which the brains of these twenty people had in a sense deemed perfect.

Designing for the future

I’d like to explore the idea further. What are the cultural differences in our visual preferences? What design elements please an elderly person’s brain, or a CEO’s? What would products designed specifically for certain groups of people look like?

It speaks to the future of design, too: perhaps we’ll take the trend for personalisation to the extreme. Get in a scanner for an hour, and after a few months I might be able to bring you a table or a chair based on what your brain activity suggests you might like.

This new, research-based approach to the visual is garnering a lot of attention at the moment in both academic and commercial realms: take the relatively recent discipline of neuroesthetics, which seeks to establish the biological and neurobiological foundations of aesthetic experience, or the burgeoning field of neuromarketing, which uses raw brain data to unlock the mysteries of consumer choice. Cognitive neuroscientist and Libertine100 member Araceli Camargo is another key figure bringing scientific rigour to the design of spaces and products.

While the influence of culture can’t be stressed enough, it’s interesting to see something as seemingly intangible as our aesthetic experiences considered through the lens of neuroscience. Perhaps there’s much to be learnt about ourselves and our minds from this cross-disciplinary blend of science and art.

So don’t discard your bar ideas immediately; they might lead to exciting new ways of looking at the world.

Merel Bekking is a research-based designer. Read her Libertine100 profile; @MerelBekking

I didn't want to ask what they liked - I wanted to look into their brains