PhD Thesis: 'Objects in Motion: Exploring Kinesthetic Empathy in Design'
Completed in November 2019 in School of Design Research, Royal College of Art.
Supervised by Professor Miles Pennington and Michael Hohl, and examined by Professor Bill Gaver and Paul Rodgers.
The physical movements of designed objects not only have their utilitarian purposes but also make us experience the diverse sensations of motion. A look at a curtain swaying in the calm wind can make viewers feel light and relaxed as if they themselves are swaying in the air. By seeing ticket barriers creaking and moving at an awkward speed, one can somehow imagine how it would feel like if their bodies moved in such a manner despite them never being barriers.
Such imaginative projection of one’s own embodied sensation to observed movements is called ‘kinesthetic empathy’, which has recently been studied in relation to human movement; e.g. audience’s experience of dance and theatre performances. On the other hand, the question of how kinesthetic empathy works with the movements of designed objects that are usually non-anthropomorphic and functional is yet unexplored. Nevertheless, it has the potential to open up new opportunities for designers to explore the aesthetics of the physical behaviour of objects.
By addressing this question, this PhD by project investigates the nature of kinesthetic empathy in the context of design and develops a design framework that supports designers’ aesthetic consideration of the element of movement. The practical research employs the methodologies of reflective practice and phenomenological research and attempts to weave my aesthetic observations and scientific theories such as embodied cognition, ecological psychology and mirror neuron theory.
Chapter 1 ‘Context of Research’ reviews the extensive context of kinetic design and kinaesthetic empathy. The relevant literature and practices come from a wide range of fields including design research, aesthetics, kinetic art, dance, psychology, neuroscience, robotics and HCI. By reviewing the work in these fields, the chapter specifies the original foundation on which the PhD attempts to develop its unique approach to designing kinetic objects.
Chapter 2 ‘Methodology’ discusses the selection and use of research methods as well as the underlying methodology that drives research through design practice. Informed by the contextual review, it outlines the main approaches of my reflective practice and perceptual learning and the new design space opened up through the research.
Chapter 3 ‘Empirical Studies, Part I’ explores the experiential aspect of kinaesthetic empathy by studying the morphological aspect. The insights are mainly obtained through my own perceptual learning, or what is called differentiation, and they form an original design framework and tools that support designers’ exploration into kinaesthetic movements.
Chapter 4 ‘Empirical Studies, Part II’ investigates the applicability of the proposed design framework and tools to the analysis and creation of kinaesthetic movements. It discusses the engagement and reflection of numbers of designers and other practitioners such as puppeteers and sound designers. It then summarises the outcomes of the four projects.
Chapter 5 ‘Kinaesthetic Design’ proposes a new design approach, kinaesthetic design, by pulling together the knowledge gained from the empirical studies. It first discusses the plasticity of our kinaesthetic sensitivity and then lays out two potentially transferable methods for analysis and idea generation. The chapter unpacks further considerations relating to kinaesthetic design and then finally summarises my findings from the research and concludes the thesis by outlining the four original contributions to knowledge.