This interview is part of an ongoing series of conversations with the Areaware designers. We asked our Spring 2016 designers to pick someone they know to conduct an interview with them about their practice. Axel Brechensbauer, designer of the Fish Pocket Knife, recently sat down with his friend and fellow designer Jonas Lundin to talk about visual perception, symbols and semiotics.
Axel Brechensbauer: Hi Jonas, welcome to my recorded conversation! You are a senior industrial designer, thinker and researcher in semiotics. Would you like to add something to that description.
Jonas Lundin : Hi Axel! No, that was a flattering and good description.
AB: Great! I would like to talk about the fish knife but above all about how we as humans see personality in objects. I know that children under the age of four live in a spiritual world. This means they can see life, soul & personality in even a stone. This is maybe a bit creepy when you think about kids that tear the head of a doll, as they might believe that the doll is alive!
AB: Even as adults we perceive objects a bit like this too. For example, do the headlights on a car represent eyes in your subconscious? What do you think about this?
JL: I absolutely agree, partly I think it's biological. We naturally read facial expressions and perceive more than five hundred muscles working in another person's face in order to feel what the other person is feeling. I think this ability also transfers on to how we see objects. Most people would agree that you can perceive if car looks friendly or aggressive etc. We see this in all sorts of objects. Whether it is furniture, a car or a product in general. AB: It's also about posture right? For example, you can tell if a chair is proud or childish.
JL: Yes, it´s about aesthetics and proportions and how we see products as signs. What does the sign tell you? We read symbolism in everything, it’s natural. We search for meaning.
AB: Does the fact that see life in objects benefit humanity in any way?
JL: Long ago it was said that, "the smarter we get, the more superstitious we get". Most people would not recognize this. But superstitions still lives inside of us. Although we don’t need to be afraid of trolls or evil magic anymore, we unconsciously read signs and symbols everywhere that we believe will affect our lives. We are often drawn to things we think will meet the spiritual demands within us. This draw is stronger than we might realize.
AB: It is often said that when we lived as hunter-gatherers, we lived in a magical world because we didn't know anything about our environment. There were omens and magic behind every rainbow and storm. Do you mean that it’s still like this, only that we used to live in some sort of Chimera?
JL: Sure, only now are born into other dreams and religions. We might believe we are pragmatic and cultivated, but even some scientists are religious. They have to believe that there is a pattern. They are looking for signs and trying to decipher. I think that deep inside they are trying to prove that it´s not all random.
When we talk about products, we are trying to learn their language. We have learned that within a set culture we can communicate with a product. We can convey a sense, tell a story and instruct how the product should be used or transmit a personality. It could be a brand or perhaps the designer that wants to transfer a personality or a feeling.
AB: I guess in many cases this will happen unintentionally?
AB: Have you seen the hashtag #iseefaces? Where people take photos of ordinary things that look like faces.
JL: Yes, we as humans can't help but do this. We search for personality, for faces, mouths and eyes everywhere. Eyes are still today one of the strongest symbols. It´s clear that we react if we see something resembling eyes. We want something to be in there.
AB: Often when we buy something we believe we are being rational. Are we looking for a friend instead of a product? Just as the scientists are looking for life in the universe.
JL: Yes, perhaps you are trying to justify a choice, yet at the end of the day it's all about regulating emotions. People will give their phones and their cars names. In this we are trying to embody these objects. Our relationship to these things can often be very complicated and relates to the way we think about a lower life form. We believe our goldfish can think. We project our feelings on them. People can be very superstitious when it comes to products. I have heard about people who refuse to buy secondhand jewelry. They believe there is something that remains from the previous owner attached. This is totally irrational, but there are thousands of examples like this.
AB: Technology can also make me feel a bit superstitious at times as well. I think about how I occasionally use the facial recognition software in my phones camera to find a face in a rock wall.
JL: I think we recognize ourselves in it.
Anyway, people do not share the world. We create our own world. We project ourselves in our own world and knit together the future and goals we have for ourselves. For example, when purchasing a new product you can see yourself using it in the future. You can see it fitting into your daily life. You hope and believe that this product will make you feel happy, which of course can be true.
(Axel, is showing Jonas Dr. Papaneks drawing of cars which resemble different ages.)
Here you see drawings of cars and depending on the shape we refer to a person's skull, and can thus determine if the car is a child or an adult.
JL: The car with the big head is also a smart car with a big brain. The one that feels sportier is younger, perhaps a teenager if we refer to the skull reference. Sometimes you will see references to an alien head shape in car design. This is clearly referring to the future.
AB: Would you say that aesthetics are connected to our own reflection? It is said that a house is a prolongation of keeping your hands over your head as protection from the rain.
J: I think it’s connected to self-image and cultural context. One perceives things that may or may not justify how much they care about a specific product. Yet, at the same time we can be totally disconnected from a product that is outside our cultural sphere and understanding. The brain just simply sorts it out. We might not even notice.
AB: Of all the objects we see around us made by humans, I just can’t believe that each designer has taken into account what we're talking about here. Yet, we do see personalities in them.
JL: It is entirely in the eye of the beholder. It is we, the receivers, who create this perception. Pretty crazy to realize how much you can change reality through self-image. Is there an absolute right?
There have been studies on aesthetics, where you show a the same picture to two groups of people from completely different cultures and social groups. The results reveal that the same part of the brain is activated. So maybe there is something much more deeply rooted in humanity. Deeper than culture and completely neurological; such as a sunset. I could imagine that more or less everybody thinks a sunset is beautiful, regardless of your cultural background.
AB: Maybe it´s connected to how we are dependent of our environment. Even if we are not fixed to earth like a flower. We are equally dependent on air, sun and water. Somehow we have tricked ourselves into thinking that we are free. If we try to leave earth and move our self out of its context, we still rely on a spaceship much like the flower needs the flowerpot to survive when transported. In this way we are not separate from our environment, we are one with it. Maybe that’s why the sun triggers so many feelings in us.
JL: Yes, and all objects around us trigger feelings. All design looks like something. But some objects will trigger more feelings than others. One of these feelings is humor. Humor is one of the strongest feelings and also defines us as humans. If an object doesn’t deliberately look like something it can still make us laugh because if it has a resemblance to something.
AB: Ok, so maybe the fish knife pushes these ideas too hard in one specific direction, but hopefully it reveals something that was actually there all along. I also hope it will trigger happy feelings!
Thank you Jonas for your time. The subject of symbols, signs and semiotics is for sure very exciting!
Axel Brechensbauer (b. 1980) has studied philosophy, design & art in Stockholm, Sydney & Barcelona. His influences include Tetris, Legos, flat surfaces and the ugliness of nature. Brechensbauer has designed mass-market products, immersive environments and sculptural exhibitions around the world. The son of two architects, Brechensbauer grew up in a neighborhood full of nerdy kids with a triangular foundation of computers, shapes and art. He creates dreamy objects, innovative designs and peculiar concepts in pursuit of the ultimate shape.
Jonas Lundin (b. 1973) studied Industrial Design at Konstfack College of Design in Stockholm as well as Economics and Economic History at Umeå University. He is a thinker and a design professional with 16 years experience in NPD, market introductions, innovation and design. His work spans from FMCG to heavy duty products, new media and communication services working with Carlsberg, Volvo, IKEA, Nokia, Toni & Guy, Sony Ericsson, Andrew Co, Manpower and Pernod Ricard. Jonas holds classes in semiotics and ideation at Konstfack, Stockholm, as well as conducts commercial research within aesthetics, semiotics and industry-specific market insight.