The neglected sense

The neglected sense: Investigating the importance of tactile engagement in Interior Design

Lucy Fricker

In design, tactility provides the strongest affirmation of human reality, because, as sensory creatures, we crave sensations through our skin to understand and navigate the world. Tactile engagement, particularly in early human development, activates the bonding hormone oxytocin and lowers the stress, fear and pain hormone cortisol, helping us to connect with people and explore our environment (Heinrichs et al. 2003; Henricson et al. 2008) thus suggesting its importance when designing our surroundings and choosing suitable materials. 

The element of material choices within interior design is critical to provide haptic stimuli, however, during this increasingly digital era our lack of tactile engagement is reducing at an alarming rate. Furthermore, current attitudes towards these decisions are heavily influenced by aesthetics. Recent studies on touch preference have shown measurable effects of textures influencing our moods and relationships; it is this information that tends to be overlooked when considering material choices in interior design. Encouraging experimentation with textural elements could begin to give more opportunities for designers to increase wellness through tactile engagement. 

Meik Wiking (2016) from the Happiness research institute based in Copenhagen explains the Danish concept of Hygge promotes wellbeing by the creation of comfortable and safe atmospheres. Design plays a huge role in this; Danes often opt for natural materials such as wood, ceramic and natural fabrics, made by hand craftsmanship, often with old and rustic elements, which appeals to the sense of touch. 

Applying this concept to interior design more generally could result in an increase in wellness, a reduction in illness recovery time, alleviation of symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety, and improved sleep patterns. Designers can use the information provided by touch responses to create more sensitive environments, proposing texture and tactile stimulation as a pinnacle for interior design in accessible and affordable ways.

During the second phase of my research, I looked in to past and present interior design projects and discovered common attitudes to material choices.  It appears interior designers centralize material choices based mainly on aesthetic, or purpose, e.g. hospitals require easy clean surfaces to maintain a sterile environment.  This contrasts to areas of design such as product design, which continually experiment with the feeling, and tactility of the product, using pilot tests to reach an optimum design.  This is where I felt interior design lacked in experimentation, and the previously discussed benefits and importance of tactility on wellness are being overlooked.  For this reason, I began to centralize my project on raising awareness of the importance of tactile engagement in interior design, with the benefits for wellness in mind, but not explicitly focused on anxiety therapy based ideas. 

Over the course of the project, I tweaked and changed my research question roughly 15 times according to the research I was discovering, this allowed me to develop a project, which encouraged experimentation.  In light of previous research projects I have undertaken during my studies, in particular designing for disability, I was aware of the effects of toxic ‘off gassing’ and the disturbance caused to highly sensitive individuals. This prompted me to continue to work with natural materials to sustain the idea that everyone can use the samples without causing interference, as well as maintaining a sustainable practice. This led me to delve deeper in to case studies, which consider the use of natural materials, tactility and design for wellness: Ilse Crawford and Peter Zumthor.

As seen in the distorted body map, data analysis graphs and graphics, this research puts forward ideas about which areas of the body respond better to more or less stimulation, and provides interior designers with a guide on appropriate implementation. Even though the designer chose to use massage balls as the inspiration of the samples, there is no limit to exploration of other unfamiliar textural formations that could be applied to surfaces to engage the tactile sense.  This project simply raises awareness of the importance for interior designer to consider tactile engagement as a priority in their practice, and how this might be implemented using sustainable materials and handcrafted methods as an approach to production.  Consideration of tactility can be included at all stages of the design process: during initial architectural plans and material choices in new builds, to introducing new materials, textures and tactile fittings when redressing and styling existing spaces.

This combination of surface design and massage therapy has never been explored and so I had found my research gap. I decided to purchase a set of four massage therapy balls and test these on participants to understand which balls provided the most pleasurable stimulation to different areas of the body. I intended for this data to help me map where the certain patterns of the raised dots were most effective. At first I began to draft questionnaires online using Google docs. However, this method would only provide information from static questions and did not allow me to engage with the participants. For this reason I created a new questionnaire, which enabled me to collect results in person. I created several drafts of the questionnaire before coming to the final draft. The questionnaire allowed me to collect quantitative and qualitative data. I found that due to the face-to-face contact with the participants, it limited the amount of data I could collect to 20 participants, as each questionnaire took roughly 10 minutes to fill out whilst I used the massage balls on the separate parts of the body. 

The pilot experiment helped me to understand where the data collection method was inefficient and suggest improvements to get a stronger set of results for future experiments. After the experiment, I decided to use the original massage therapy balls, as inspiration for the practical designs, so that the data would in theory, is directly transferable. For this reason I initiated the practical work phase by vacuum forming the massage balls, to examine the surface textures and brainstorm ideas of how to translate them in to materials.






Synthesizing my practical project

The challenge for me was to develop a method of incorporating a highly tactile stimulating activity with surface design. This led me to massage therapy techniques for stress and anxiety relief and muscle therapy and the research I discovered enlightened me on the positive effects of prolonged deep pressure and massage releasing happy hormones causing stress relief and relaxation.

Initially began by looking in to textile design ideas, and considered scripting a questionnaire to establish preferences for natural fabric based materials. However, product design projects revealed the market was already flooded with fabric based textural stimulatory products such as weighted blankets with fabric manipulation properties. For this reason I chose to focus on the hard furnishing components of interior design such as wall coverings, floor coverings and fixtures and fittings. As suggested in my essay these elements often get overlooked with regard to the tactile input we receive when we come in to contact with them. With this in mind I wanted to challenge the tactile properties of these elements. Thus, I began to experiment with how I could introduce tactile engaging textures to these surfaces to draw sensory attention to our surroundings.Taking inspiration from the raised bump surfaces of weighted blankets proven to relieve stress and promote restfulness, I chose to experiment with embossing the hard surfaces to create a parallel of weighted blanket surfaces to hard furnishing surfaces.  To produce the embossed effect, I used the same massage balls from the experiment, in order to produce a range of four different textural formations on the surfaces. 


My idea behind this was to be able to produce tiles or panels with the separate formations on, which the experiment established preferences for the formations on separate body parts, so the designer could then arrange the panels in a space according to its users, e.g. height dependent. In order to adhere to the designing for disability guidelines, I decided to produce my own recycled paper samples, using all the waste paper, which I had collected over 4 years during my studies. 

The process allowed me to manipulate the topography of the paper whilst still in its wet state, so I could apply the patterned embossed design in the making process. I created small-scale samples to test the different patterns to ensure they all came out as I intended. In order to test if other materials could take on the formations, I experimented with air drying terracotta clay and untreated woods. With the clay I created small scale tiles by rolling the clay out thin and embossing the massage ball formations straight in to the clay, whilst on top of a foam board to allow the clay to be indented without tearing, similar to the paper embossing technique. The wood samples required a more mechanical approach; I created illustrator files containing circles in the same formations as the massage balls, and then used a CNC machine to cut away at the material around these circles, I then sanded them down to create a smoother finish. 

Overall, the samples I produced are still rough around the edges, and I would like to continue to perfect the making process. However, for the purpose of this project, they do demonstrate how natural materials can be manipulated to contain the intended formations.  


















In conclusion, the research explored within this essay supports the idea of tactile engagement as a crucial concept that interior designers should consider in practice. It highlights the benefits humans can gain from tapping into our sense of touch.  The researcher developed a method of incorporating a highly tactile stimulating activity; massage therapy, with interior surface design. Massage therapy techniques are one method for relief of stress and anxiety where research has shed light on the positive effects of prolonged deep pressure and release of happy hormones promoting relaxation.  Other ideas explored suggest the use of natural materials to achieve a non-toxic range of surfaces for interior features, with the knowledge that those with high sensitivity can function more effectively in these spaces. 

The pilot study consisted of collecting data from participants and translating the results into design ideas. The evidence collected helped to distinguish areas of the body with varying sensitivity and preference to the specific massage ball formations but did not, however, provide the researcher with data that would be relevant to other textures. In its current phase, one critical missing element to this project is re-testing the resultant samples with participants to establish response data, which can then help to develop more prototypes. At present it is unclear whether the effects of the massage balls are mimicked in the samples and would provide consistent predictable responses. However, this pilot study has successfully initiated ideas of introducing tactile qualities to interior surfaces and solid fittings and raised awareness of the benefits it provides. Overall, the inclusion of tactile engagement in common interior design practice will subsequently begin to create more accessible sensory stimulating spaces to help us reconnect with our surroundings in this increasingly digital age. 




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