On Lickable Design

14 Nov

I stumbled across a fantastic quote this week in my current book, Design for Hackers.  Chapter 4 talks about technology and culture and references the Aqua interface of Mac OS X, notable for it’s beautiful styling and complete departure from previous graphical interfaces.  When Steve Jobs introduced Mac OSX at the Macworld Expo in 2000 he shared some of the design inspiration behind the look, remarking “One of the design goals was when you saw it, you wanted to lick it.”  Apparently, one of the design inspirations behind Aqua was candy. Jonathan Ives, Apple’s design lead, put in many hours at a candy factory searching for inspiration.

This quote struck me for a number of reasons, though I can honestly say that I’ve never designed a game with the goal of lick-ability.  There’s the inspiring idea that we can look for design inspiration anywhere, that even in the sweet stickiness of a candy factory one can make connections to the hard plastic and metals of a computing product.  Then there’s the uniqueness.  In game design we too frequently see games that are just another copy-cat version of the future, or yet another post-apocalyptic game.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with these genres but they’ve been done, and when they are redone without some unique flavor they fall flat.

What really struck me about this quote, however, was who the design was talking to.  Steve Jobs did not literally want people to lick his computers.  That would just be unsanitary.  He didn’t even necessarily want them to think about licking the computer, or have any kind of conscious notion of connecting the computer with candy.  The design was talking to the customer’s subconscious to create a visceral response.  So what, precisely, is a visceral response?  Merriam-Webster defines “visceral” as:

1. felt in or as if in the internal organs of the body

2. not intellectual

3. dealing with crude or elemental emotions

4. of, relating to, or located on or among the viscera

A visceral response is literally a response of the organs.  The visceral nervous system, more commonly known as the autonomic nervous system or ANS, is a part of the nervous system that functions mostly below conscious control, regulating digestion, heart rate, sexual arousal, and perspiration among other things.  When you see a snake and your heart rate jumps and you lurch back, that fight or flight response is your automatic nervous system.  When your pupils dilate in response to a bright light, that’s the autonomic nervous system.  And when you start to salivate at the sight of a delicious morsel of candy, that is also the autonomic nervous system.

Design should not just speak to our head.  It should speak to our eyes, our mouths, our stomachs, and our hearts.  A person’s visceral response to a product should be designed just as purposefully as their conscious, articulable response.  Then maybe, just maybe, you might get a lickable product.

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