What if you could create a design based on your inner most feelings by measuring your brain activity? Would you like it? How would you relate to it? These where the central questions for Your Brain_manufacturing, a research project by designer Merel Bekking.
In this project, Merel Bekking applied her established research and design method Brain_manufacturing to just one individual, Marcus Fairs. In 2015, Fairs, design journalist and founder of online design magazine Dezeen, spent an hour in a MRI scanner. This MRI scanner was used as a design tool to directly measure Fairs brain activity to determine what he likes, despite of what he says he likes. Interested in his subconscious preference for shapes, colours, materials and objects, Bekking was looking for his formula for perfection based on his brain activation.
In collaboration with neuroscientist dr. Steven Scholte and the Spinoza Centre for NeuroImaging, Bekking discovered that Marcus Fairs’ brain has a strong preference for orange, plastic, closed rounded shapes and chairs. Using these results, Bekking created a hyper-individual design. Interested to find out what happens if you have to live with an object that you like subconsciously, but consciously have other feelings about, Bekking placed the chair in Fairs living room. For four months Fairs was confronted with the chair on a daily basis. During this time Bekking observed how the relationship between Fairs and the chair developed.
Before knowing the results and receiving the chair, Marcus Fairs expressed his doubts about the project. He was sceptical about the research and said that he was anticipating he would hate the object. Even though he was interested to see what the outcome of the research was, he was not sure about how he felt about having to live with this object for several months.
Once confronted with the chair based on his subconscious preferences Fairs was happily surprised. Confused but optimistic he kept repeating: “I like it much more than I thought I would”. Even though still somewhat hesitant, his initial reaction was definitely a positive one. While at first, he was reluctant to live with something he didn’t choose himself, he was now asking about what could be arranged if he wanted to keep it. This proved that it is possible to design based on someone’s brain activation. It seems that your conscious preferences can be overwritten and you can be enthusiastic about objects that are made on your personal brain preference.
Four months later Bekking returned to Marcus Fairs to collect the chair. How did the bond between him and the chair develop? Upon arriving, Bekking discovered that things had turned for the worst. ”Just after you left it, I think I took a violent dislike to it” is the first thing Fairs told Bekking. He explained that even though he tried to like it, and he appreciated the idea behind it, he just couldn’t seem to find anything positive about it. The chair was never used and he felt it was quite an imposition to have to live with it. He would immediately clarify to visitors why he had this chair because he didn’t want people to think he chose it himself. After a while the chair just disappeared from his radar. While the chair was still there it was completely ignored. It didn’t exist anymore.
What happened? How could his feelings change so dramatically? How can you go from feeling very enthusiastic and joyful to having a violent dislike to something? Fairs’ sudden change of mind and his feelings of shame for the chair implies a more socially conscious side to the project. Our initial reaction to objects around us might be closer to our subconscious preferences, but we put a more conscious, socially aware, filter over it. It might not be conscious decision to do so, but it does affect the long-term relationships that we have with objects. With this research project, Bekking showed that over time it doesn’t matter that you live with something that is hyper-individual, scientifically based on your personal brain activation. If it doesn’t match what you think you like you can’t force a sentimental bond with things.
Can we create hyper-individual design objects based on an individual’s brain activation? Yes, you can use state-of-the-art science to determine what people subconsciously like, and create designs based on these results. And how would one relate to this? To that question there is no simple answer. Did we get any closer to finding out what perfection really is with Your Brain_manufacturing? Did Bekking crack the code? To quote Marcus Fairs: “Life isn’t that simple, is it?” Taste and preference are complex matters. After Brain_manufacturing and Your Brain_manufacturing we now know that what we like can’t be reduced to a simple formula, that would match your every need. It seems that what we like isn’t something that we truly believe or experience but that it is something that is socially constructed. That there are shared assumptions about beauty and preference and that we rationalize our opinions about design and objects by comparing them with the created models of the social world.