The human hand is our most sensitive apparatus for receiving
information about the world. With our fingertips, and the hundreds of
sensors therein, we can perceive the warmth or coolness of metal or
locate objects in the space around us. We can test the soundness of
a structure or find pleasure in the hand of a fabric. An object with
a smooth, sculpted shape that fits the hand invites interaction or
deployment. The welting of upholstery pleases the eye and draws the
hand to confirm the visual message of quality. In the same way, the on/
off switch of a task lamp—a detail key to its proper function—may have
a particular shape, color and size. But another level of detail emerges
at the moment one presses the switch. Is the surface rough or smooth?
Does the switch feel flimsy or sturdy? Does the feel of the switch aid
or hinder its operation? Details inspire or inhibit engagement with
our work tools. They alter the quality of our interaction with the knobs
and levers on a task chair, the pulls on a desk drawer or the keyboard
of our laptop.
Touch as a detail of design is often intimately related to sound, with
the perception of sound being contingent on an initial performance of
touch—the pressure of the hand to activate a switch or close a drawer,
the tapping of the fingertips on the keypad or mouse. Of course, we are
surrounded by sound at all times. It is the ambient background of our
lives at work, in the street, in the shops. But objects, when encountered,
maneuvered or manipulated—that is, touched—also make sounds that
may fall almost beneath the threshold of awareness, yet still affect the
way we feel or behave.
Touch and sound tell us a great deal about the quality of design. The
whisper of your desk drawer as it glides open is a detail that suggests
the nature of its construction—quite different than if the drawer
rattles or sticks when pulled or pushed. The same is true of a table or
chair poised on casters. Does the table roll smoothly across the floor?
Does the chair slide easily into place? Or, does our touch reveal a flaw
in design or execution? Does sound or the absence of sound call
attention to clever mechanics and well-made details? The muffled click
of a cabinet door when it is pressed shut reassures us that the door is
secure. The “ka-chunk” of a stapler tells us that a job has been done.
Touch and sound communicate—often making the difference between an
object that functions as it was meant to and one that does not, between
a tool that is a pleasure to use and one that fails to fulfill its promise.