Patina of things

Authors: Tek-Jin Nam
Posted: Thu, August 29, 2013 - 11:18:03

I tend to use things for a long time. It feels as if my belongings take on aspects of myself. So it is difficult for me to throw my possessions away. When our building was renovated a few years ago, I kept all my furniture, even though it was not the best fit to the new interior. The furniture was special to me, since I had received it when I started living here, and we have lived together ever since. 

There are many old electronic products of mine like this. I still keep digital cameras and mp3 players that are more than 10 years old. My audio set with an amplifier and speakers is more than 20 years old. I bought the set with earnings from my first part-time job. The company that produced the audio amplifier no longer exists. When I moved to different countries for study, the audio set always followed me. I am happy that it still works well and gives me the joy of listening to music. 

One of the most valuable products of mine in my twenties was a video camera with an 8mm tape deck. I invested much more for this than the audio set. At that time, video recording was rare. I recorded the lives of my family and friends, thinking I was making a sort of time capsule. The video camera is no longer working, the LCD broke a long time ago, and 8mm videotapes are no longer available on the market. The video-recording media has changed to memory cards via 6mm digital tape and DVD. Although the video camera is junk, I still keep it. When I look at it again, I feel the memories ingrained in that video camera. It may take some determination to abandon it. 

Many designers wish to create things that are used and loved by many people for a long time. This is a challenging task. People should want to own those things and feel special when they use them. First of all, the item should be physically durable. It should work well without malfunctioning or breakdowns. In addition, it should provide emotional durability, as Jonathan Chapman stressed this in his book Emotionally Durable Design. It is also necessary that the product should be resistant to trend changes. People should not get bored easily. It is particularly difficult to create IT products and services with these requirements, as they are dependent on the rapid technological development and standard changes, and alas, rendered obsolete, just like my 8mm video camera. 

A designer who wants to create physically and emotionally durable products faces a dilemma. That designer wants people to use the products for a long time, but then faces the risks that the role of creating an updated version of the product is no longer necessary. Artificial obsolescence is the term that I knew early in my design education. It is a marketing practice in which companies deliberately make old models appear out-of-date by introducing new ones with changes and additional features to attract customers. It seems bad for our environment and end users, but companies often need this approach to make profits and to be sustainable in the commercial world; therefore, many product designers are engaged in this practice. Meanwhile, if designers create functionally and emotionally perfect products they will, theoretically, have nothing more to do with those products since end users have no need for new models. It is ironic that as more people love and use designed products, the designers who wish to create quality work lose their purpose. Fortunately for designers, the world behaves differently. People are capricious, and sociocultural trends keep changing with the development of technology. 

Therefore, it is important for designers and HCI specialists to study how to create products and services that many people use for a long period of time. What would be the key characteristics of such IT products and services? I think one of the ways to create long-lived precious things is to add stories and meanings for owners. Perhaps the stories can be kept in a visible and invisible patina that stores memories of interactions between people and things.  

Products with patina often create special meaning for owners, just as my possessions did. Many products often give such feelings naturally without physical patina, as the associated memories invisibly remain somewhere. Things inherited from parents are treated preciously. We regard such objects as preserving our parents’ memories. 

This attitude is not unrelated to the belief that people’s souls inhabit their possessions. There are many cultures believing that, as people use things, their souls are transferred to the objects. This is particularly common in Asian cultures. In Japan, there is a perspective that no spirit exists in newly created, unused objects. In contrast, objects that are used by many people are considered having a strong spiritual power. If there are a large number of objects used by people, it means the spiritual weight creates value. Examples of these products are the Super Normal products introduced by Morrison and Fukasawa. 

Traditionally, many Korean people think that when they buy or rent a house, traces of previous occupants influence their lives. If previous occupants of the house proceeded to a prestigious university or succeeded professionally, the house tends to be sold or rented out easily. On the other hand, people are hesitant to use objects or live in houses with bad luck or trauma. As we have seen, this is a common theme of many horror movies from both eastern and western cultures, proving this belief must be universally accepted by the human mind.

An example object with the storage of patina is Long Living Chair, presented in CHI 2013 Interactivity. It is a rocking chair with a semi-hidden display showing the day it was produced and how many times it has been used. The information provides a moment of wonder and a sense of relatedness to the object when it is accessed. The movie, Red Violin, directed by François Girard, tells the story of a mysterious violin and its many owners. I thought that the violin could have been even more special if it had the means to keep the traces to unfold the stories. Moonhwan Lee in my research lab is also investigating the potential of patina as a design strategy. 

We often come across situations where objects remind us of their owners. I speculate that the souls of the users become ingrained into objects. Such objects take on the identity of the owner. Horcruxes are the things with souls shown in the Harry Potter stories; a dark wizard or witch hides a fragment of his or her soul for the purpose of attaining immortality. This must be the most precious object of the wizard. The possessions that we care most about can be like the Horcruxes of everybody. If you can store your soul in objects, what objects would you choose? The objects would be the most meaningful and valuable things that designers could produce for everyday people. 

In the analogue world, these objects are musical instruments from a master, ornaments from parents, or books and stationery from ancestors. Sherry Turkle introduced such things as evocative objects. In the digital world, people consider IT products such as laptops and smartphones meaningful objects for their life. Moreover, people seem to think intangible information or contents can store people’s souls. Recently, I saw a TV drama where a girl keeps an old feature phone with great care as it has the last voice message of her father, who had died in an accident. She listens to the message to get comfort when she has troubles. The feature phone breaks down at some point and can’t be fixed; we empathize with the sorrow of the girl who lost the contents. The Korean movie Phone, directed by Byungki Ahn, is a thriller about a soul attached to a phone number. In it, a woman takes over a phone number from a previous owner, a mysteriously murdered girl. As in these stories, we are in a time when virtual contents or information such as website addresses or QR codes can become the things that are associated with our souls. 

The emerging new forms of IT products and services bring changes in the ways we possess or emotionally connect with them. There are many popular songs composed by musicians who unfortunately committed suicide. When I listen to these songs, I feel a special emotional connection to those musicians. How about the emotional connection with music depending on the type of media? Would the digital music or photo files of the musicians create the similar emotional connection to the physical inheritance, such as LP records or personal objects? I speculate that the form and interactions would bring changes to the way we feel about the things we care about and the emotional connection. 

I think that to understand how people get to own, use, and abandon the precious things they love and have used for a long period time can help to create a people-centric future. In order to create IT products and services that provide emotional experiences for people and added value in the digital world, we need more ideas. I wonder if the application of patina can be a candidate for making things with a soul.

Posted in: on Thu, August 29, 2013 - 11:18:03

Tek-Jin Nam

Tek-Jin Nam is an associate professor in the Industrial Design Department at KAIST.
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